NEW YORK – A key hurdle to extending a landmark nuclear treaty between the U.S. and Russia isn’t Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. It is China.
The New START treaty, the last major arms control accord between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, is set to expire in early 2021. Like another key treaty covering intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which collapsed this year after the U.S. quit that accord, Trump administration officials say the agreement may not be worth extending if China isn’t brought into the fold.
A failure to renew or extend the accord would mark the effective end of decades of agreements aimed at limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Experts say it would also send a worrisome signal to other nations — from Saudi Arabia to North Korea — pursuing or seeking to pursue nuclear programs.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in August that the U.S. should consider “multilateralizing” the agreement: “If we really want to go after avoiding an arms race, and capture these systems, we should multilateralize it.”
Yet while the U.S. believes China will double its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, most arms control experts say it would be better for Washington and Moscow to settle on an extension of New START and worry about Beijing later.
“China doesn’t have anything like the number of warheads the U.S. and Russia possess,” Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia who co-chairs the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said in an interview. “We will at some point have to have China in the equation, but that won’t happen now. Common sense would be to at least extend a treaty that already exists and work from there.”
Russian officials say they want the current agreement extended for the allowed five years beyond its 2021 expiration. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters last month that the U.S. continues to insist China be brought into negotiations, a message he said Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered to him at the annual United Nations General Assembly meetings.
But Moscow says time is running out. Negotiations for a new deal would typically take as long as a year. Even settling on an extension would be lengthy.
“We urge our American colleagues not to lose time anymore,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with Russia’s International Affairs journal. “There’s almost none left. Simply letting this treaty die would be unforgivable. This will be perceived by the international community as neglecting one of the key pillars of international security.”
Despite American efforts, Beijing has so far balked at trilateral talks, arguing it is far behind Moscow and Washington, which together hold more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
“China has no interest in participating in a nuclear-arms-reduction negotiation with the U.S. or Russia, given the huge gap between China’s nuclear arsenal and those of the U.S. and Russia,” said Fu Cong, director general of the foreign ministry’s Arms Control Department. “The U.S. and Russia, as the countries possessing the largest and most advanced nuclear arsenals, bear special and primary responsibilities on nuclear disarmament.”
Nine countries possess nuclear weapons, with the global nuclear warhead count at 13,865 in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia and the U.S. each have more than 6,000 warheads, followed by France at 300, China at 290, the U.K. at 200, India and Pakistan with over 100 each, Israel at about 80 and North Korea estimated at 20 to 30.
China’s stockpiles are expected to grow rapidly. The country “has developed a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, a new multiwarhead version of its silo-based ICBM and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in May. “With its announcement of a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber, China will soon field their own nuclear triad, demonstrating China’s commitment to expanding the role and centrality of nuclear forces in Beijing’s military aspirations.”
Getting China to participate in any talks is complicated by Beijing’s own calculus, which involves deterring India and expanding its weapons program, said Gary Samore, a former U.S. senior director for nonproliferation and export controls during the Clinton administration. “A trilateral approach is not practical at the moment because the Chinese will not agree to institutionalize their very small numbers compared to the U.S. and Russia,” added Samore, who now directs the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.
The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) — the Cold War-era agreement that expired this year — is already raising tensions with Beijing. Esper recently indicated that the U.S. was looking at deploying previously banned intermediate-range missiles in Asia, angering Chinese officials. Potential bases for the missiles could be in Taiwan and Japan, Samore said.
Beyond China, U.S. talks with Russia are complicated by increasing mistrust on both sides. As a U.N. disarmament committee sought to begin its scheduled meetings earlier this month, Russian officials wouldn’t agree to adopt the schedule in protest of a U.S. refusal to issue visas to members of its delegation, a diplomat said.
The potential of an escalating arms race comes after a prolonged period of relative progress in curbing nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and Russia destroyed thousands of ground-launched missiles thanks to the INF treaty. New START, reached between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, capped the total number of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.
Crucially, after reaching that accord, the U.S. and Russia adopted a united stance against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, forcing Tehran to sign a 2015 nuclear accord that the U.S. withdrew from last year.
Unlike the situation during the Cold War, the advent of new computer and space technologies has moved much of the nuclear arms competition in recent years away from quantity to quality, warned Nunn and Ernest Moniz, the former U.S. Energy Department secretary and the co-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in a recent report. That may bolster the U.S. case for China to be included in a future deal.
China’s rising military and technological prowess in the decades since the first nuclear deals were ratified means the Trump administration is right in calling China to be included in new strategic talks, even if it remains in the U.S. interest to extend New START, said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The U.S. has historically dominated many emerging technologies such as space, but now the Chinese are growing in these areas,” Manning said. “We need strategic dialogue to tackle these new areas. Do we want autonomous weapons or not? Do we want to ban hypersonics or not? That’s where the next wave is, not in whether nuclear weapons should be reduced or not.”
But losing New START would send a signal to the world that the two biggest nuclear powers don’t care about arms control, Nunn said. Lori Esposito Murray, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees.
“You don’t throw out the baby with the bath water,” Murray said. “You keep the constraints you have that have produced an 80 percent reduction of nuclear stockpiles and then you look at a process that looks at China and advanced technologies.”