The late June G20 summit in Osaka missed a golden opportunity to address some burning arms control issues. The leaders of China, Russia, and the United States all attended the summit. These three governments are in an interlocking trilateral dispute over whether, and to what extent, to extend bilateral strategic nuclear arms control treaties between Moscow and Washington to China as well.
Until recently, the Russian government was ardently pressing Washington to include China and other nuclear weapons states in future nuclear arms control talks. In contrast, the immediate U.S. priority had been achieving further reductions in Moscow’s and Washington’s much larger arsenals. However, their roles have recently reversed, with Trump administration representatives stressing the importance of limiting China’s growing nuclear capabilities. Meanwhile, Russian officials have toned down their public desires to include China in future arms talks, though privately they probably welcome the increased U.S. pressure on Beijing.
Unfortunately, the technological, geopolitical, and political environment for arms control has become unfavorable. Mutual accusations of cheating, renewed great power competition, and U.S. and Russian withdrawal from several security agreements have all created a bad climate for disarmament. Long-standing arms control categories are becoming obsolete.
For example, the distinction between “strategic” and “non-strategic” nuclear weapons (NSNWs) is collapsing. Both types concern U.S. officials since they see the latter category of “tactical” weapons as providing a potential escalatory path to strategic nuclear war. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review warns that both China and Russia may use low-yield nuclear weapons in a mistaken effort to intimidate the United States into backing down in a conflict, despite the high risks of any nuclear use.
Furthermore, U.S. defense experts have also expressed concern about nuclear-armed cruise missiles that could be launched from Russian submarines operating near the U.S. coasts. They have expressed a desire to include limits on these NSNWs, which have not been covered in past Russian-U.S. strategic arms control agreements, in future deals. Conversely, the U.S. Defense Department and Congress are engaged in debates about fielding U.S. tactical nuclear weapons aboard U.S. Navy strategic submarines. Although scholars have developed complex “escalation ladders,” the difference between nuclear and non-nuclear explosions is clear; after that threshold is breached, the potential “firebreak” between any limited and large-scale nuclear use is weak.
From the Trump administration’s perspective, another diminishing distinction is between the Russian and Chinese nuclear forces. U.S. officials state that both countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, that China is developing a triad of strategic delivery vehicles like Russia and the United States, and that both states are allegedly engaged in low-yield nuclear testing. Moscow has now followed Washington in formally withdrawing from the 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (The INF Treaty), which Beijing has never joined.
Although Russian cheating on the treaty was the immediate reason for the treaty’s collapse, the exemption of limits on China’s large INF missile arsenal was another reason for declining U.S. commitment to the treaty. Indeed, there has been more interest among the U.S. defense community in developing INF-range systems to counter Chinese military power in Asia than for European scenarios involving Russia. The INF experience makes evident the disutility of excluding China from major arms control treaties, especially since China is emerging as the primary military challenger to the United States. Other countries, such as Russia, also want China to make its defense policies more transparent and constrained to promote their own national security.
Similarly, the growing capabilities of the North Korean and Iranian missile arsenals require more effective U.S. missile defenses (MD), dissolving the distinction between interceptions of intermediate- and long-range MD systems. The United States and Japan are testing their new co-produced SM3-IIA interceptor primarily against both types of North Korean missiles. However, China and Russia caution that these advanced sea-based interceptors can also theoretically attack some of their strategic missiles. Chinese and Russian officials and experts regularly fault the United States for withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Iran nuclear deal, not ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and imposing nonproliferation sanctions on many entities without the UN Security Council’s approval (where Moscow and Beijing can veto resolutions).
For example, writing in China-US Focus, Zhao Weibin Researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, blames Washington for the demise of the INF Treaty. She worries its end “might cascade into other agreements” and spur further nuclear proliferation and lead to the dismantlement of “important verification mechanisms.” Yet, besides exhorting the Chinese government has made no visible effort to reinforce the treaty, such as offering to limit its own INF-range missiles or make their numbers and capabilities more transparent. Chinese leaders must ask themselves whether their unwillingness to even discuss strategic arms control with their Russian and U.S. counterparts might contribute to an unconstrained nuclear arms race among all three countries.
Moreover, the Chinese national security community should not presume that Moscow will invariably tolerate Beijing’s refusal to participate in strategic arms control. Immediately before meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan, Vladimir Putin gave an important interview to The Financial Times. Asked about triangular nuclear arms control between China, Russia and the United States, Putin noted that, “China is a huge power that has the capability to build up its nuclear potential. This will likely happen in the future, but so far our capabilities are hardly comparable.” Still, the Russian president said that he would support any measure that helps contain an arms race.
For now, China, Russia and the United States could expand their partnership with Britain and France within the so-called “P5” framework. Through meetings of this group, the P5 members can exchange information about their nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and security policies, particularly how to address the increased discontent of non-nuclear states regarding these issues. These five countries could make greater progress with a more harmonized approach. Earlier this month, the United States hosted the first plenary meeting of the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. Experts from some 40 countries, including all five nuclear weapons states, attended.