The United Kingdom’s national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, has warned of the growing risk of nuclear confrontation with Russia and China, amid a breakdown in the backdoor communication channels that helped maintain peace during the Cold War.
Speaking in Washington, DC, Lovegrove said that the lack of dialogue was taking place at a time when there were not only a “broader range” of strategic risks, but also more “pathways to escalation” as a result of advances in science and technology, the proliferation of weapons, and increasing rivalry in areas such as space.
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“The Cold War’s two monolithic blocks of the USSR (Soviet Union) and NATO – though not without alarming bumps – were able to reach a shared understanding of doctrine that is today absent,” he said on Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank.
“Doctrine is opaque in Moscow and Beijing, let alone Pyongyang or Tehran.”
He said that mutual understanding helped ensure the world did not stumble into a nuclear conflict.
“This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into nuclear war,” Lovegrove said. “Today we do not have the same foundations with others who may threaten us in future – particularly with China.”
US President Joe Biden is expected to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping over the phone later on Thursday.
The call, not yet confirmed by Beijing, would be their first discussion since March and comes at a time of simmering tensions between the two nations, particularly about a possible visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
China claims the self-ruled democratic island as its own and has said there will be “consequences” for the US if the trip goes ahead. The US does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but is committed by law to ensure the island has the means to defend itself.
Lovegrove also expressed concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in ‘rogue’ states, as well as the rapid development of such weaponry among confirmed nuclear powers, including China, where he said the UK had “clear concerns” about the country’s modernisation of its nuclear arsenal.
Last month, NATO listed China among its “strategic threats” for the first time, saying Beijing’s military ambitions, its confrontational rhetoric towards Taiwan and increasingly close ties with Moscow posed “systemic challenges”.
Citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of the fraying Cold War mechanisms, the UK security chief also urged countries to commit to arms control measures, stressing that such agreements were “vital” in keeping the world safe.