On what would otherwise be a solemn year of remembrance to mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States is shaking up the status quo in regards to nuclear weapons — and raising fears of a new arms race, this one with China.
From announcing its planned exit from the Open Skies Treaty that permits each party to conduct short-notice, military reconnaissance flights over the others’ territory, to contemplating a return to live tests of nuclear explosions and eyeing the deployment of advanced missiles to Asia — possibly to Japan — the moves are a drastic shift from an era that had focused almost exclusively on reining in weapons of mass destruction.
Many of the moves, according to top officials in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, have been aimed squarely at creating what they have termed “a new era of arms control” — one that would bring China into the fold.
Now, with expiration looming for New START, Washington’s sole remaining strategic arms-control agreement with Russia, Trump is attempting to make China an offer that it can’t refuse and bring it into an envisioned trilateral pact to replace it.
There’s just one problem: Beijing isn’t biting.
U.S. focuses on China
Despite repeated entreaties, China has been exceedingly blunt in its refusals to enter negotiations for such a pact, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying in January that Beijing “has no intention of participating in any trilateral arms control talks.”
“This position is very clear and has been widely understood by the international community including Russia,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, labeling the proposal an attempt by the U.S. “to dodge and shift its responsibilities for nuclear disarmament.”
China — which is believed to have 320 nuclear warheads, a fraction of the estimated 3,800 in the U.S. stockpile — says it is committed to advancing international arms control and disarmament processes.
But, according to Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, China “is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade as it undergoes “the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal” in its history in a quest to become a “first-tier force” by 2050.
Based on this reasoning, Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s newly installed top arms control envoy, announced last month in his first public speaking appearance that new nuclear talks with Russia are set to kick off soon. While New START is ostensibly set to be the subject of the meeting — Moscow has offered to extend it for five years, but the U.S. has demurred — Washington is instead highlighting China as a focal point of the talks.
“We have concrete ideas for our next interaction, and we’re finalizing the details as we speak,” Billingslea said during an online event conducted by the Hudson Institute think tank on May 22.
He said that in a call with his Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, he “made perfectly clear” that it is the Trump administration’s “expectation that Russia help us to bring China to the negotiating table” for a trilateral deal.
Former U.S. arms control officials and nuclear security experts, however, say the odds are long that an administration known more for bolting arms control treaties than inking them will be able to convince China to join.
“It’s almost totally unrealistic,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. diplomat and expert who worked on nonproliferation issues.
“The U.S. has been pressing both China and Russia for the entire three-year duration of the Trump administration to engage in such talks,” he said. “The Chinese have no interest and the Russians have no interest in trying to corral the Chinese.”
Typically, completing far-reaching treaties like New START require years of complex negotiations involving veteran diplomats. The Trump administration, however, has neither that kind of time — New START expires in February — nor a team versed in the intricacies of nuclear arms control.
Billingslea, for one, is not an expert in that field. He previously served as undersecretary for terrorist financing with the Treasury Department, where his supporters say he was successful in persuading the international community to enforce sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea.
But the State Department under the Trump administration has also experienced a brain drain of nuclear and proliferation experts, with many career diplomats sidelined, resigning or being ousted, according to observers, further complicating any trilateral push.
Trump ramps up pressure
Still, the Trump administration has forged ahead in recent months, conducting a series of moves widely seen as part of a concerted attempt to heap pressure on China, and to a lesser extent Russia, over their nuclear arsenals.
Most recently, White House officials reportedly discussed last month whether to conduct the first nuclear test explosion since 1992 — a move that would have global ramifications.
The Washington Post, quoting a top administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that demonstrating that the U.S. could “rapid test” could prove useful in negotiations for a trilateral deal.
But Matt Korda, a research associate with the Federation of American Scientists, warned that a return to testing would do little to persuade Beijing to join such a pact.
“That isn’t going to happen,” he said. “Instead, it would open the door for a new arms race and have global environmental and security ramifications.
Worse, he said, “if the United States conducts an explosive nuclear test, other countries will surely follow.”
Longer-range missiles previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between Washington and Moscow, which was scrapped in February last year, have also played a role in attempting to influence Beijing’s thinking on arms control.
China loomed large in the U.S. decision to abrogate that pact, with the Trump administration later telegraphing its hopes to deploy once-banned weapons to the region — possibly to Japan — “sooner rather than later” to close an ever-increasing missile gap with Beijing.
Unrestrained by the INF pact, China has deployed about 2,000 of these weapons, according to estimates by the U.S. and experts and, per DIA’s Ashley, launched more ballistic missiles in 2018 for testing and training “than the rest of the world combined.”
Long banned under the INF, the U.S. has only recently begun work on building its own versions of the weapons.
In a not-so-subtle hint that it would further build up its own arsenal in response to any U.S. decision to deploy those weapons to Asia, Beijing has warned of “countermeasures” should the move go forward.
Tim Morrison, a former senior White House official for arms control currently with the Hudson Institute, has said that, considering Beijing’s continuing advancements to its nuclear arsenal, the reasons for “the modernization of arms control” — a reference to the trilateral approach, among other policy shifts — “should be apparent to all.”
Asked about fears that the Trump administration’s moves could trigger a new arms race, Morrison told The Japan Times that he agreed with Defense Minister Taro Kono, who said in January that Tokyo and Washington “need to continue our diplomatic efforts, even with Russia, to get China engaged in a framework” that works toward the reduction of “new strategic weapons” in the post-INF period.
“The unfortunate fact is that Russia and China are in the midst of a nuclear arms race given the huge growth in their nuclear forces,” Morrison said in an email. “The proposal to attempt trilateral arms control is intended to stop the Russia/China nuclear arms race.”
Others, however, acknowledge that while China will continue to expand and modernize its nuclear forces, the recent moves by Washington will give Beijing more incentive to move faster and stronger in that direction.
“That has an obvious impact on Japan’s security because most of China’s systems cannot reach the United States, but they can reach Japan,” said Fitzpatrick, who was twice posted to Tokyo, where he served as a special assistant to then-Ambassador Mike Mansfield and worked on alliance security issues.
Because of Japan’s location and its alliance with the U.S., it is seen by some as the only realistic option for deploying intermediate-range ballistic missile systems.
Although the Japanese public is staunchly opposed to the placement of such weapons on its territory, that could change if Washington and Beijing continue on their current trajectories. The Trump administration has taken a transactional approach to the U.S.-Japan alliance — contentious talks on cost-sharing for U.S. troops based in Japan are expected this year — and China is continuing to ramp-up its assertiveness in the western Pacific.
Fitzpatrick said he could envision a scenario that starts with a China vs. U.S. arms race, where Tokyo is a growing and willing partner of Washington, that ultimately creates an atmosphere favorable for those in Japan who want to develop their own indigenous nuclear capabilities — or “have at least a partial finger on the button.”
Fitzpatrick conceded that while this kind of scenario is far from certain, “and maybe it’s not even probable … the steps that the Trump administration is taking in withdrawing from arms control agreements and treating U.S. security commitments as bargaining chips for monetary purposes all contribute to a dangerous arms race in East Asia.”
Ball in Washington’s court
At the moment, reining in the animosity between the two powers looks increasingly difficult as tensions surge to fresh highs over not just nuclear weapons, but the coronavirus, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, trade and human rights.
And this, coupled with fears among nonproliferation experts that the Trump administration may be using China’s intransigence to a trilateral deal as a kind of “poison pill” designed to scupper New START’s extension, are adding fuel to the fire.
“Anyone who looks at this knows China is not going to join three-way arms control talks,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s just part of an anti-arms control mentality on the part of the Trump administration. They don’t believe in arms control. They think that arms control only would constrain the United States, and anything that constrains the United States is not good.”
Indeed, Trump has often spoken of the awesome power of nuclear weapons, variously bragging about the “size” of his “nuclear button” and pontificating on allowing Japan and South Korea to acquire their own nukes.
But, asked about the poison-pill analogy, Morrison, the former senior White House arms control official, called the accusation “silly” and “unserious.”
Billingslea, the new top nuclear envoy, too, has dismissed this. Washington, he said, “must confront the reality that countries such as Russia and China are, simply put, arms racing.”
Advocates of engaging China say that a trilateral approach is not altogether a bad idea, noting that it would be wrong to assume nothing can be done, or that it is best to wait until conditions improve.
But rather than alluding to bolting from New START outright if a three-way deal remains elusive, they recommend staying in the pact, while pursuing trilateral talks and confidence-building measures.
“The ball is now in Washington’s court. The Trump administration should respond positively to Moscow’s invitation and extend New START now, while at the same time launching a strong diplomatic push for trilateral arms control negotiations to begin shortly thereafter,” David Santoro, director for nuclear policy at the Pacific Forum think tank, wrote in a recent paper on the subject.
Doing so would be fraught with pitfalls and the symbolism — in a year where the world marks 75 years since the horrors of August 1945 while grappling with another global catastrophe — would be rich if any attempt falters.
Billingslea, however, is optimistic that persuading Beijing remains within reach. And even if the attempt fails to pan out, Trump, he says, has a backup plan.
“The president’s made clear that we have a tried-and-true practice here,” he said. “We know how to win these races. And we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”
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