US says China reveals little in arms control talks

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visits China

By Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -China divulged little in arms control talks with the United States this week, and no follow-up meeting is scheduled, but a senior U.S. official on Tuesday called the discussions constructive because they were the first of their kind in years.

Monday's session in Washington, which U.S. officials said was the first since the Obama administration, were led by senior U.S. and Chinese arms control diplomats and the mere fact of the meeting represented progress, the U.S. official told Reuters.

"Having the meeting was in and of itself constructive. Now, I would not refer to yesterday's meeting as substantive, though," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "'Substantive' implies more of a back-and-forth than occurred."

The meeting, and others between senior U.S. and Chinese officials, aim to set a positive tone ahead of possible talks between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco next week.

A top U.S. priority has been ensuring that the intense competition between the world's two largest economies and their disagreements over issues from trade to Taiwan do not spiral into conflict.

Washington is also concerned about the expansion of China's nuclear arsenal which, at an estimated 500 warheads according to the Pentagon, remains below the U.S. and Russian arsenals but which some analysts believe could increase the risk of conflict.

In June, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described what Washington wanted from Beijing, including details on the size and scope of Chinese nuclear forces, a willingness to provide missile launch notifications and transparency about its nuclear arsenal expansion.

He also said the U.S. had seen no Chinese willingness to "compartmentalize" arms control and strategic stability from disagreements in the broader relationship.

The senior official made clear there was little Chinese candor on these issues, nor an agreement on a second meeting.

"I really ... hesitate to extrapolate from this one meeting" that China is prepared to drop its refusal to discuss arms control matters separate from other contentious issues, he said.

"The Chinese delegation did not respond substantively" to issues Sullivan raised, including a U.S. need for better understanding of Beijing’s nuclear weapons doctrine, policies, and budget, the official added.

"I wouldn't say we learned anything new from them or that they delved into a great amount of detail in terms of their own nuclear force, their buildup and whether or not their policy or doctrine could be shifting over time," he added.

Whether there may be more such talks may depend on the expected Biden-Xi meeting.

Another senior U.S. official last week said U.S. and Chinese teams have agreed in principle for the presidents to meet in San Francisco but important details had to be hammered out.

The U.S. State Department described Monday's meeting in positive tones in a statement but acknowledged the many areas where it wanted China to be more forthcoming.

"The two sides held a candid and in-depth discussion on issues related to arms control and nonproliferation as part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship," it said, using the acronym for the People's Republic of China.

"The United States emphasized the importance of increased PRC nuclear transparency and substantive engagement on practical measures to manage and reduce strategic risks across multiple domains, including nuclear and outer space," it added.

The Chinese embassy in Washington said it did not have any immediate comment on the meeting, led by Assistant Secretary of State Mallory Stewart and Sun Xiaobo, a director-general at China's foreign ministry.

The United States has a stockpile of about 3,700 nuclear warheads, with roughly 1,419 strategic nuclear warheads deployed. Russia has about 1,550 nuclear weapons deployed and according to the Federation of American Scientists, a stockpile of 4,489 nuclear warheads.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay in Washington and by Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minn. Additional reporting by Paul Grant, Katharine Jackson and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Jonathan Oatis and Lincoln Feast)