The west risks the initiation of nuclear conflict with China or Russia because of a “breakdown of communication” with the two countries, the UK’s national security advisor has warned.
Sir Stephen Lovegrove, 55, said that the erosion of backdoor channels had resulted in an increased chance of an accidental escalation into war.
In a speech in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said he believed the deterioration of communication with China and Russia had created a higher risk of “rapid escalation to strategic conflict”.
“The cold war’s two monolithic blocks of the USSR and Nato – though not without alarming bumps – were able to reach a shared understanding of doctrine that is today absent,” he said. “Doctrine is opaque in Moscow and Beijing, let alone Pyongyang or Tehran.”
Lovegrove, who was appointed to Whitehall’s most senior defense role in March 2021, added: “During the cold war, we benefited from a series of negotiations and dialogues that improved our understanding of Soviet doctrine and capabilities, and vice versa. This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into nuclear war.
“Today, we do not have the same foundations with others who may threaten us in the future – particularly with China. Here the UK strongly supports President Biden’s proposed talks with China as an important step.”
Joe Biden, the US president, is expected to have a phone call with China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Thursday – their first conversation since March – in an attempt to diffuse tensions over Taiwan.
Taiwanese troops have practised fighting off an invasion as tensions with Beijing intensified over plans by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, to visit the self-governing island.
China insists, which has its own democratically elected government, is its sovereign territory and is determined to reunify the island, by force if necessary.
Last year, Beijing tested a hypersonic missile that circumnavigated the globe before hitting a target. China, Russia and the US are also developing hypersonic missiles that travel at more than five times the speed of sound and can manoeuvre in the air.
Lovegrove praised the White House’s decision to re-engage with China but also highlighted the risks of technological advances.
“We have clear concerns about China’s nuclear modernisation program that will increase both the number and types of nuclear weapon systems in its arsenal,” he said.
Russia the first country to use hypersonic systems during a war when Moscow became its Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine. The Kremlin claims the missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia, said in a speech earlier this month that western support for Ukraine has triggered the most serious crisis in relations between Russia and the west since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Despite the increased risks, Lovegrove said much of the existing architecture remains “vital”, such as the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention, and the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, he added that the reality is “that current structures alone will not deliver what we need a modern arms control system to achieve”.
On the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defense said: “We recently passed the milestone grim of 150 days since Putin launched this unprovoked, illegal war, bringing untold suffering to the innocent people of Ukraine.
“I’m afraid the conflict fits a pattern of Russia deliberately and recklessly to act the global security architecture.
“That’s a pattern that includes the illegal annexation of Crimea, the use of chemical and radiological weapons on UK soil, and the repeated violations that caused the collapse of the INF [intermediate-range nuclear forces] intervening.
“And we will continue to hold Russia to account for its destabilizing actions as an international community.”