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Nuclear Arms Control for US, Russia, and China

The Trump Administration has strongly hinted that, rather than renew New START [1], it would create a new tripartite arms control treaty between the US, Russia, and China. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. Russia and the United States have claimed that one of the reasons it was having second thoughts about the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was the fact that the treaty did not apply to China. However, the reality is China’s nuclear arsenal is drastically smaller than the US’s and Russia’s, and its “no first use” doctrine (meaning that it will not use nuclear weapons first, though it reserves the right to respond in kind to a nuclear attack,) also sets it apart. It would therefore not be attractive for China to join an arms control agreement with the traditional focuses of a US-Russia deal, such as New START. As such, instead of sacrificing New START to attempt a triparty treaty, the US should refocus on re-establishing arms control dialogue with Russia and renew New START while strengthening its bilateral security dialogue with China.

Image courtesy of Tyg728, © 2017.

The New START treaty, which entered into force on February 5, 2011, was negotiated between Presidents Obama and Medvedev as a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) treaty. The START I treaty set hard limits on the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear warheads for the United States and the Soviet Union. Each state was allowed: 1600 deployed ICBMs each, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range heavy bombers; 6000 total warheads on ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers; and strict limits on the number of warheads that a heavy bomber can carry. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the four major nuclear armed successor states (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) agreed to become parties to the treaty. There was an attempt to create a START II treaty in the late 1990s, but the United States Senate did not ratify the treaty. The US withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty in 2002 sealed START II’s fate, as Russia withdrew from START II shortly after the US withdrew from the ABM treaty.

New START builds upon the foundation of START I, further reducing the number of allowed missiles and warheads. Specifically, each party is allowed: 800 total with 700 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers; and 1550 deployed warheads on ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers. New START also builds upon the inspection and verification regime of START I, while making the inspections regime more streamlined and less complex. Arms reductions aside, the intelligence provided by the New START inspections is reason enough to keep the treaty in force.

The now-defunct INF treaty came into being in 1987 after years of effort by the US to get the Soviet Union to talk. Initially only intended to target American and Soviet intermediate range missiles deployed in Europe, Premier Gorbachev and President Reagan expanded the scope of the treaty to include all ground launched intermediate range (between 500 and 5500 km) nuclear missiles owned by the two states. On August 2, 2019, the INF treaty formally died after the US withdrew from the treaty, citing Russian non-compliance with the treaty.

The United States and Russia have broadly similar nuclear arsenals and postures: both have massive numbers of warheads and reserve the right to launch a nuclear strike if the government feels it is necessary. Arms control agreements between the two thus focus heavily on reductions and elimination of nuclear weapons, coupled with inspections for verification. China, on the other hand, is different. Its arsenal only contains around 300 nuclear warheads, as opposed to the thousands, and unlike the US and Russia, China practices a “no first use” doctrine.

There are some concerns over the Chinese arsenal. China’s arsenal contains several varieties of intermediate range missiles, in addition to its ICMBs. China is projected to grow its arsenal in the next decades, which would place them ahead of France as the third most powerful nuclear armed state. Even with these concerns, it would not be prudent for the United States to abandon New START for a potential trilateral agreement; China’s arsenal is too small for it to be interested in a US-Russia style agreement that places limits on arsenal size. Furthermore, it has nuclear armed rivals on its borders (primarily India), and thus intermediate range missiles form an important part of China’s arsenal. China currently does not have the desire or motive to join a nuclear arms control agreement with two states that have vastly different arsenals and doctrines. Instead of trying to bring China into a trilateral agreement with the US and Russia, the United States should first agree to extend New START with Russia. It is imperative that, with the demise of the INF treaty, arms control efforts continue via New START in order to prevent a return to an unchecked nuclear arms race. Then, Washington and Beijing should continue building a bilateral security dialogue and discuss other mutual national security concerns to all three states, such as cyber and space. It is in these areas where Washington should forge ahead with Moscow

[1] Formally known as: The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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