Nuclear arms control has suffered several stinging defeats over the last two years. President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia (INF). New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the last surviving nuclear arms control treaty between the US and Russia, is up for renewal, but its prospects are grim. Additionally, the Trump administration recently announced a push to include China in the New START treaty. While accomplishing this would be a monumental achievement, China has little incentive to join and has openly refused to take part.
A primary goal of nuclear arms control is reducing tension by clarifying a state’s intent to use its weapons. Transparency is paramount in allowing signatories to observe weapon movements, inspect missile bases and silos, and perform flyovers of the other party’s territory. This principle has been at the core of agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union and Russia, and as a result greatly reduced the risk of miscalculations that could lead to nuclear war.
China’s arms buildup isn’t competing with U.S. and Russian arsenals. As China came late to the arms game and have lacked the means to compete, they haven’t pursued traditional power projecting weapons of mass destruction. Their nuclear stockpile is estimated at around 250-260 warheads, compared to the U.S. stockpile of 4,018 and the Russian stockpile of 7,850. The primary reason China won’t join negotiations for New START is simple — it doesn’t need to.
New START limits deployed nuclear warheads (1,550), nuclear capable launchers (800), and deployed missiles and bombers (700), at levels well above what China has or could field in the near future. Joining the treaty would be moot as China does not have enough nuclear delivery vehicles or warheads to reciprocally pare down.
The United States and Russia have two primary reasons to get China into arms control negotiations: transparency and intermediate range missiles (550km to 5000km). While the United States and Russia have traded superiority in numbers and secrecy for openness and cooperation, China has been able to obscure accurate counting of its nuclear and non-nuclear missile inventory, what’s deployed, and where it’s deployed.
Roping China into any agreement would necessitate significant transparency measures from participating parties. However, given today’s geopolitics any transparency measures would disproportionately benefit the United States’ and its allies’ forces surrounding China. The United States is situated in China’s backyard with bases and the U.S. 7th fleet spread throughout the Pacific. Thus, advanced knowledge of Chinese missile stocks and deployments would be key to the US’ defense of the region or planning an offense. China, on the other hand, would gain next to nothing—it has few ICBM’s capable of hitting the United States and has no assets within striking distance of the U.S. mainland.
China’s massive inventory of intermediate range missiles (US Department of Defense estimates between 2000 and 2600) counters regional threats, not global. China’s stockpile isn’t meant to deter against large swaths of nukes. It doesn’t assure mutual destruction. Instead the missiles are meant to overwhelm adversaries within range of China itself, be it in course of an eventual invasion of Taiwan, the intervention of the United States Navy, Vietnamese or Filipino assets in the South China Sea, Russian land forces, or even the Japanese Navy.
For Russia and the United States, China’s intermediate range missile stockpile represents a regional imbalance as neither country has built or deployed any INF missiles for almost 30 years per the INF Treaty. Russia could station these faster, shorter range missiles along its long border with China, while the United States could potentially deploy missiles in Guam or Korea. Now that the INF Treaty is on life support, both nations will rush to close that missile gap. Yet they would much prefer working to reduce China’s stockpile instead, clipping China’s advantage instead of risking a different kind of arms race.
Yet INF missiles are China’s largest strategic asset, balancing out the United States’ naval, operational, and nuclear superiority. Minimizing that advantage in any way, while Russia and the United States retain the two largest and most dangerous nuclear stockpiles in the world, is a non-starter. China has already stated that it has no need for arms agreements and that it believes Russia and the United States are the only parties responsible for reducing their inventories. It’s hard to envision what could bring China to the table, and the recent spate of U.S. treaty abrogations doesn’t make it an enticing negotiation partner.
If Russia and the United States want to limit China’s asymmetric weapons capabilities, they’ll have to get creative and consider China’s greater regional security concerns instead of just weapons systems.