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Beijing and Moscow are batting down an offer by the Biden administration to hold unconditional discu͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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June 9, 2023


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Jay Solomon
Jay Solomon

Hello and welcome to Semafor Security, where we dive into the forces and personalities defending, defining, and destabilizing the world.

The last few weeks we’ve seen the U.S. and China engage in a global — and delicate — diplomatic dance. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met China’s foreign affairs czar, Wang Yi, in Vienna on May 10-11. A senior State Department official held high-level talks in Beijing this week. And CIA director Bill Burns also reportedly made a secret trip recently.

But on core military issues, China doesn’t seem interested in engagement. In fact, the People’s Liberation Army appears completely out of reach. The PLA rejected U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s offer to meet his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, in Singapore last weekend. And as I detail for the first time this morning, China has resolutely spurned NSA Sullivan’s overture from last Friday to engage in “unconditional” arms control talks with the U.S.

This all points to a seriously dangerous trend in U.S.-China relations in which superficial visits and photo ops take place. But the consequential and dangerous issues — including nuclear proliferation, China’s role in the fentanyl trade, and security in the South China Sea — go unaddressed. And the world is becoming increasingly more unstable as a result.

Let me know what you think of this newsletter, and please send tips to jsolomon@semafor.com.


Kherson. On Thursday, Russian forces shelled this southern Ukrainian city that was flooded with waters released from the collapsed nearby Kakhovka dam. Thousands of Ukrainians were left homeless and 14 killed in the flooding, according to Russian and Ukrainian officials. Kyiv and Moscow have each accused the other of bombing the dam.

Jeddah. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Wednesday and announced a strengthening of relations between Washington and Riyadh, which have been damaged recently by disagreements over human rights and energy policy. But Saudi officials stressed that they’re balancing their ties to the U.S. with China. “I don’t ascribe to this zero-sum game,” Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said.

Beijing. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Iran’s defense attache in Beijing, Davoud Damghani, for allegedly procuring equipment from China for use in Tehran’s ballistic missile program. The Treasury blacklisted six other Chinese and Iranian nationals and entities for allegedly playing a central role in this illicit trade.

Jay Solomon

China rejects nuclear talks with the U.S. as it looks to strengthen its own arsenal

Xinhua/Xia Yifang via Getty Images


China and Russia are rejecting a U.S. offer to hold “unconditional” nuclear arms control talks, a move that risks further fueling global proliferation.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned in a major address last Friday that the post-Cold War agreements guarding against global nuclear proliferation were fraying and invited Beijing and Moscow to resume direct discussions on the issue. “We now stand at what our president would call an ‘inflection point’ in our nuclear stability and security,” he said.

But the Chinese government told Semafor in its first direct public response that it wasn’t open to talks for the foreseeable future. “China’s nuclear strength is far from being on par with the U.S. and Russia. The time is not ready yet for [Beijing] to join the nuclear arms control negotiations proposed by some,” Washington embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said in a statement.

“China upholds a defensive nuclear policy. It has promised not to be the first to use nuclear weapons and has maintained nuclear strength at the minimum level for national security needs,” Liu added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government also dismissed Sullivan’s June 2 overture, warning that no engagement on arms control can occur while the U.S is pursuing a “hostile” policy towards the Kremlin in Ukraine.


The lack of nuclear talks between these three global powers risk plunging the world into an uncontrolled arms race that threatens both global stability and specific U.S. military interests.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was designed to restrict atomic weapons to permanent members of the U.N. Security Council who would then gradually work to thin out their stockpiles. It was not entirely foolproof; India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all acquired the bomb over the years, while Israel is widely believed to have as well. But the old framework risks becoming functionally dead, in part, because Beijing and Moscow appear more intent on modernizing their own arsenals than preventing other nations from acquiring their own.

China is currently on pace to increase its stockpile of warheads from around 400 today to nearly 1,500 by 2035, Sullivan said in his speech. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has pulled out of the last arms control agreements of the post-Cold War era, such as New START, while using nuclear intimidation tactics in unprecedented and dangerous ways. This includes Putin’s deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus and threats to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine’s military forces

The consequences for proliferation could be grave. Iran and North Korea have been making serious advances in their own nuclear programs. Meanwhile, countries that have long relied on the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella for protection, such as South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, are questioning whether it’s time to create their own nuclear infrastructure, out of fear that America’s deterrence capabilities may no longer be enough to keep them safe.

The White House is continuing to pursue diplomacy to stem this tide but finding few takers. In addition to last week’s offers to China and Russia, the White House has repeatedly, and so far unsuccessfully, sought to engage Tehran and Pyongyang in direct disarmament talks. Sullivan raised the prospect last week of using the United Nations Security Council as a forum to put in place new guardrails against global nuclear proliferation. But there’s little reason to expect this effort to be any more fruitful, given Beijing’s and Moscow’s vetoes over the council’s actions.

Russia and China’s nuclear buildups could also give them more direct military leverage against the U.S. and its allies.

Both countries, of course, already have large nuclear arsenals capable of laying waste to far-off cities. But numbers and delivery systems still matter. For instance, Beijing is only now beginning to build out its own Triad of nuclear-equipped subs, land-based missiles, and bombers, as the U.S. maintains. That would give it more protection against a nuclear first-strike by Washington, by essentially guaranteeing it could retaliate with an atomic blow of its own.

Having its own Triad as an insurance policy could in turn give China more confidence to launch conventional military operations, such as an invasion of Taiwan, much the way Russia was able to storm Ukraine without fear of being counterattacked by the U.S. or Europe.

The most worrying dynamic, nuclear strategists say, is the prospect of China and Russia working together on nuclear matters. This March, Russia announced the sale of nuclear fuel to the China Atomic Energy Agency, providing Beijing the materials to build more bombs. In the coming decades, the two countries could have more deployed nuclear weapons together than the U.S., strategists say.


A large number of Republican lawmakers and strategists have argued that the U.S. will need to grow its own nuclear arsenal in order to compete with Russia and China. But Sullivan pushed back strongly last week against the idea.

“I want to be clear here — the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them.” Instead, he called for the replacing and modernizing of the U.S.’s current nuclear Triad.

Sullivan also said the U.S. is developing conventional weapons and technologies that will allow Washington to maintain a military advantage against Chinese and Russian nuclear advances. He specifically cited hypersonic weapons, and space and cyber capabilities that are being developed. “These modernization efforts will ensure our deterrent capabilities remain secure and strong as we head into the 2030s — when the United States will need to deter two near-peer nuclear powers for the first time in its history.”


China has accused the United States itself of accelerating nuclear proliferation through AUKUS, its recent deal with Britain and Australia to build a fleet of new nuclear powered submarines for the Pacific, as well as other cutting-edge military technologies. On Wednesday, in what appeared to be an implicit rebuke to Sullivan’s speech, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called on the three countries to “stop acts of nuclear proliferation such as their nuclear submarine cooperation, stop undermining the international nuclear non-proliferation system by applying double standards, and stop brewing storms over the Pacific Ocean.”


One Good Text

Farzin Nadimi is a senior fellow focused on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


The Wall Street Journal broke an explosive story Thursday claiming China and Cuba reached a secretive pact to build an eavesdropping facility on the island-nation targeting the southern U.S. The piece raises the specter of the Communist-controlled country again serving as the tip of the spear in a global conflict against the West, as it did for the Soviet Union during the Cold war. The article claimed Beijing had agreed to pay Havana billions of dollars in exchange for the construction of the electronic spy center, which could target American military facilities across the 100-mile strait from Cuba.

The impact of the story, though, was lessened by strong denials from both the White House and the Pentagon about its accuracy. Brigadier Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Defense Department’s spokesman, said: “I can tell you based on the information that we have, that that is not accurate, that we are not aware of China and Cuba developing a new type of spy station.” Still, other major news organizations matched the Journal piece later on Thursday, including CNN and Politico giving it significantly more life.


The number of soldiers from Ukraine’s vaunted Azov Brigades still held captive by Russian forces, according to Yulia Fedosiuk, who leads a group of Ukrainian families seeking their release. “I’m not sure they can survive until the end of the war,” she said at an event in Washington on Wednesday.

Frank Schneider/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

⋉ ADVANCE: Pacific ties. The U.S., Australia, and Japan began building an undersea cable in the Pacific to connect the island of Nauru to Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The East Micronesia Cable project is estimated to cost $95 million and serve as an alternative to Chinese telecommunications. FSM’s outgoing president recently accused Beijing of seeking to take over his country’s communications infrastructure.

⋊ RETREAT: Atomic dreams. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister announced Thursday that Riyadh was moving ahead with its civilian nuclear power program, but that the U.S. might not be his country’s partner. “We have differences of opinion, so we’re working on finding a mechanism for us to be able to work together,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said. Semafor revealed last week that Saudi Arabia has pitched American leaders on building an industrial scale nuclear energy program, called nuclear Aramco, but that this would require enriching uranium on Saudi soil.

Person of Interest
U.S. Department of State

Maximillian Rivkin. The U.S. government placed a $5 million bounty this week on an alleged Swedish drug dealer who was the central focus of a five-year FBI sting operation. Maximillian Rivkin — also known as “Max”, “Microsoft,” and “Malmo” — trafficked amphetamines from his base in northern Europe. But the 40-year-old didn’t know he’d signed on to an encrypted communications network, called ANOM, that the FBI established in 2018 to covertly track the messages and operations of transnational criminal syndicates.

During that time, the FBI and Swedish Police closely tracked Rivkin through ANOM and tied him to murder, money laundering, and kidnapping, according to U.S. officials. The messages connected the Swede to Australia and its booming amphetamine market. The Sydney Morning Herald got access to Rivkin’s ANOM messages that show him entering New South Wales through a syndicate called The Firm. “I have a line to Australia. I am now with the biggest people in the world,” he wrote in mid-2020. He was identified by a tattoo on his arm that had three monkeys.

The FBI wound up its ANOM sting, called Operation Trojan Shield, last May — at which point a grand jury in Southern California indicted Rivkin on racketeering charges. Sweden levied similar charges. Overall, 800 people were arrested on three continents, and 38 tons of drugs seized. The State Department said the operation underscored its commitment to combatting the global narcotics trade, particularly synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which killed more than 100,000 Americans last year.

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— Jay

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