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Trilateral Negotiations on Arms Control? Not Time Yet

Sep 13, 2019
  • Fan Jishe

    Professor, the Central Party School of Communist Party of China

In early August, the Trump administration in the United States quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (or INF) Treaty, one of the most important bilateral treaties ever signed in the Cold War era, and it didn’t show much interest in extending the expiring New START treaty, the only bilateral nuclear arms control agreement left intact.

Talk by American officials and scholars then began about trilateral negotiations between the U.S., Russia and China. President Trump, more of a deal-breaker than a dealmaker, displayed great interest in trilateral talks on several occasions. In December, he tweeted that “at some time in the future, President Xi and I, together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.” In the State of the Union address in February, he proposed that the United States and Russia could negotiate a different agreement than the bilateral INF Treaty by adding China and others.

Here comes the first big question mark: Does President Trump genuinely believe it is possible to conduct trilateral negotiations on arms control? It seems that he himself believed so.

Three decades ago, he planned to ask President Ronald Reagan to post him to Moscow, saying he was confident he could easily persuade the USSR’s top leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to agree to a major nuclear arms control treaty. Major progress in arms control was made during Reagan’s eight years, including the INF Treaty, the one recently dismantled by Trump. But that progress had nothing to do with Trump. When Trump became president, he likely still had that dream in mind.

Other than the lingering dream, Trump has proved to be the most transactional president in U.S. history, which might have motivated him to propose trilateral arms control. He complained that the arms race was getting out of control, and a lot of money could be usefully applied to things other than the military. Considering the huge amount of money necessary for the modernization and replacement of the American nuclear arsenal, it seems quite natural for the transactional president to propose trilateral nuclear arms control. If trilateral nuclear arms control can be achieved, he could save a large amount of money for other purposes.

Then comes the second big question mark: Is trilateral nuclear arms control possible? The proposal might be good, but it is not yet the right time.

First, there is not enough time for any serious negotiations on nuclear arms control, trilateral or otherwise. Trump might believe he is the right deal-makerdealmaker, but he hasn’t shown that in the past two and a half years. There’s only a year and a half left before the end of his term, and any negotiation on nuclear arms control can be expected to take longer. Negotiation itself is a political, diplomatic and technical process, and nobody can get it done overnight. What is more important, most bilateral arms control treaties were achieved while the general state of the parties’ relationship was relatively good. Now there is no such political environment conducive to bilateral negotiations, let alone trilateral ones.

Second, a professional team of the kind required for trilateral negotiations is not ready. Almost all governmental agencies that have an arms control portfolio are understaffed. There is no senior adviser designated for arms control issues within the National Security Council. Trump ousted National Security Adviser John Bolton on Sept. 10, even though Bolton is deeply familiar with arms control issues. He is also well-known for opposing, rather than supporting, arms control. Bolton stood behind American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the INF Treaty. He strongly opposed negotiating with North Korea, both recently and 17 years ago. If Trump wants to pursue negotiations on arms control, Bolton would not be the right person to consult with in any case. Andrea L. Thompson, undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs, is likewise unenthusiastic about the issue. Both the State and Defense departments are understaffed for any endeavor in this regard.

Third, the Trump administration’s policy preference, performance and practices in arms control cast a major cloud over any chance of trilateral negotiations. The United States opted out the Iran nuclear deal, even though Iran had been observing its commitments, and quit the INF Treaty without any attempt to discuss the matter with Russia. According to recent reports, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, might be the next victim, since some senators suggested the U.S. should “unsign” it. What is more important, if the United States and Russia cannot reach an agreement in extending the New START treaty, that will be straw that broke the camel’s back, officially bringing an end to arms control.

Combining all the aforementioned factors, it is hard to believe that Trump’s proposal regarding trilateral negotiations is either serious or sincere.

Many people have begun to talk about getting China involved in future negotiations on arms control, but should China join in this process? The answer could be somewhat complicated.

China’s nuclear policy has remained largely unchanged for several decades. It has a “no first use” policy and maintains a very small nuclear arsenal, a low alert level, and limited deployment. China took a very different route from the United States and Russia on nuclear matters. Many foreign observers suspect that China may change its nuclear policy in the future, but whether or not China makes changes depends on many factors, such as whether other nuclear countries will further increase the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategy, whether the erosion of the global arms control architecture will lead to its demise and whether the development and deployment of missile defense systems will reach an inflection point at which the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrence will be challenged.

When asked about the chance of trilateral negotiations on arms control in early May, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded with a plain “no.” Since the United States and Russia possess several thousand nuclear warheads, it is not very professional to invite China to join the process, as it has fewer than 300, according to a recent estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. They should dramatically reduce their own nuclear arsenals first before extending the invitation to China.

Certainly, if the proposed trilateral negotiations are not about the number of weapons but strategic stability, China should get on board as soon as possible. China has been actively involved in multilateral nuclear talks for quite awhile — including proposing the No First Use Treaty to the five nuclear powers, chairing the P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, contributing to the successful and indefinite extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and review conferences and participating in negotiations for the CTBT.

With the development of new technologies, it seems the relationship between the nuclear powers is facing some daunting challenges. Policies adopted either by nuclear powers or non-nuclear ones may pose major threats to strategic stability. How to maintain or restore the strategically stable relationship between nuclear powers is a common interest of all, and China is ready to attend any discussion dealing with this important matter.

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