The US has sought a dialogue on strategic stability with China since resuming military-to-military contacts in the mid-1990s.

The US has sought a dialogue on strategic stability with China since resuming military-to-military contacts in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Clinton administration saw military-to-military contacts as part of a broader strategy of engaging China in a more cooperative relationship, a rationale that then-secretary of defense William Perry outlined in a now declassified memorandum to the service secretaries.

Subsequently, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations each sought to initiate a dialogue with China on nuclear-weapons issues. In April 2006, for example, President Bush and PRC president Hu Jintao committed to including nuclear issues in the bilateral dialogue. Despite the agreement, then-secretary of defense Robert Gates complained on a visit to China that the PLA ‘hadn’t received the memo’. Under the Bush Administration, the US and China eventually held a small number of meetings that included discussions of nuclear issues, notably a discussion at a session of the Defense Consultative Talks and an experts-level meeting in Washington.

In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration committed to pursue a high-level bilateral dialogue on strategic stability with China. ‘The purpose of a dialogue on strategic stability is to provide a venue and mechanism for each side to communicate its views about the other’s strategies, policies and programmes on nuclear weapons and other strategic capabilities,’ the authors of the Nuclear Posture Review wrote. ‘The goal is to enhance confidence, improve transparency and reduce mistrust.’ While such goals might seem anodyne, support for dialogue reflects a particular US experience with the Soviet Union and a sense that the mechanisms for US–China interactions are not commensurate with China’s strategic importance and its military capabilities.

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Jeffrey Lewis Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an affiliate with the Center for Security and International Cooperation at Stanford University.

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