WASHINGTON ― A Pentagon official tasked with implementing the National Defense Strategy called on China to open crisis communications channels with the U.S. as Beijing continues to expand its nuclear arsenal.
Mara Karlin, the assistant secretary of defense for strategies, plans and capabilities, told reporters at a Defense Writers Group roundtable on Tuesday that “escalation management in the Indo-Pacific is so incredibly important” when asked about China’s accelerating nuclear capabilities.
“We have been trying really hard to set up communications channels, and they have not been enthusiastic about this,” said Karlin. “That’s really problematic. When we look at history, it is usually quite helpful for us to be able to sit down and speak with those whom we disagree not least so we can get an understanding of what they’re doing, what we’re doing, what we all think is escalatory and how we might understand it in different ways.”
U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, disclosed in February that China has more Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launchers than the United States, which has 450.
The Pentagon’s 2022 China military power report found that Beijing’s nuclear warhead stockpile has surpassed 400 and projected “it will likely field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by its 2035 timeline” if it continues its current rate of nuclear expansion. The U.S. stockpile contained 3,750 nuclear warheads as of 2021.
The Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy prioritizes deterring China in the Indo-Pacific followed by Russia’s challenge in Europe.
To that end, Karlin emphasized the deepening U.S. engagement with Indo-Pacific allies and partners while noting their growing investments in their own military capabilities.
Karlin singled out “Australia and Japan as two notable cases where they’re investing meaningfully in their military” and noted both countries “are putting out strategies that are very much in line” with the U.S. National Defense Strategy. She also noted the two U.S. allies are forging closer ties, while Japan and South Korea are collaborating more closely as well despite their historical tensions.
Additionally, she said overhauling export control regulations for Australia and the U.K as part of the trilateral AUKUS agreement would help get the three countries’ defense industrial bases “knitted together.”
Despite the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific, Karlin emphasized that U.S. force posture in other areas of the world, like the Middle East, has remained steady.
“There’s this notion, particularly held by some of our partners across the Middle East, that the United States is abandoning the region,” she said. “I just don’t really see the evidence that that is accurate. We still have something like 25,000 to 30,000 or so troops that are out there. We still have a bunch of capabilities.”
She also highlighted Israel’s 2021 integration into U.S. Central Command, which oversees forces in the region, as well as its recent normalization agreements with several Gulf Arab countries brokered by former President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden recently has endeavored to follow up on these agreements by pursuing his own Israeli-Saudi normalization deal. The Saudis have reportedly asked for a mutual security pact with the U.S. as one of their conditions to normalize ties with Israel.
Karlin declined to discuss “internal deliberations” regarding a mutual defense pact with the Saudis, but said “to the extend you can more closely knit together across the region to help with security and stability in the Middle East, that’s a good thing.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.