Will China engage in arms control?

(Game changer: Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy that can strike the US from thousands of miles away)

The US President Donald Trump’s phone call to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday comes within 3 weeks of the release of the redacted report of the Robert Mueller inquiry into his ‘Russia collusion’. It was a 90-minute phone conversation, which underscored Trump’s determination to foster good relations with Putin notwithstanding the narrative that he and the people around him were engaged in improper activities with Russia. 

The Kremlin readout listed economic ties, ’strategic stability’, North Korea, Ukraine and Venezuela as topics that figured in the conversation.  

But the headline-hogging news is that Trump proposed to Putin the idea of expanded arms control talks that would also include China. Trump claimed that China is on board. Talking to the media at the White House, he said: 

“We’re talking about a nuclear agreement where we make less and they make less, and maybe even where we get rid of some of the tremendous firepower that we have right now. We’re spending billions of dollars on nuclear weapons, numbers like we’ve never spent before. We need that, but they are also — and China is, frankly, also — we discussed the possibility of a three-way deal instead of a two-way deal.  And China — I’ve already spoken to them; they very much would like to be a part of that deal. In fact, during the trade talks, we started talking about that.  They were excited about that.  Maybe even more excited than about trade.  But they felt very strongly about it.”

“So I think we’re going to probably start up something very shortly between Russia and ourselves, maybe to start off.  And I think China will be added down the road.  We’ll be talking about nonproliferation.  We’ll be talking about a nuclear deal of some kind.  And I think it will be a very comprehensive one.” 

Trump sees a potential signature foreign policy achievement. Trump is known to have a penchant for big deals. The Washington Post reported last week that Trump “has ordered his administration to prepare a push for new arms-control agreements with Russia and China after bristling at the cost of a 21st-century nuclear arms race.” The reports from Washington indicate that the White House is conducting intense interagency talks to develop options for the president to pursue such a deal. 

The CNN quoted a senior White House official as saying, “The President has made clear that he thinks that arms control should include Russia and China and should include all the weapons, all the warheads, all the missiles. We have an ambition to give the President options as quickly as possible to give him as much space on the calendar as possible.” 

Trump is giving conflicting signals. Even as he talks about arms control, Trump has backed the $500 billion Obama-era project to modernize the US atomic arsenal, pulled out of the INF Treaty with Russia, and updated the US nuclear posture to be more aggressive. But then, earlier last month, in a meeting with Chinese trade envoy and vice premier Liu He, Trump bemoaned the levels of military spending by major powers, suggesting all that money could be better spent on other things. 

Clearly, in any emergent scenario, the broader context of relations will be the key factor. Bringing China on board arms control talks is a common Russian-American agenda. To understand this, we need to go back in time to the negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. 

Fundamentally, China’s approach to arms control has been different from the US or Russia’s. Washington and Moscow have been historically driven by the strategic imperative of parity that generated in turn the Cold-War era arms race and its ‘anti-thesis’ — arms control and reductions. And the concept of mutual nuclear deterrence and stability was shared and interdependent. 

China, on the contrary, never sought parity and had no reason to enter into an arms race or to engage in arms control. Today, China reportedly has an arsenal of less than 300 strategy warheads (as against 1550 that the New START Treaty of 2010 allows the US and Russia to keep.) Simply put, China stayed on the sidelines, maintaining that the US and Russia need to reduce their arsenals first before its participation in limitations and reductions. 

When the INF Treaty was negotiated in the 1980s, although its leitmotif was European security, the pact also had implications for East Asian security. China was on adversarial terms with Russia at that time and joined hands with the western powers to ensure two things: a) Britain and France were kept out of the INF Treaty (lest that set precedent for China’s inclusion), and, b) INF Treaty also included Soviet deployments east of the Urals. 

(Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Washington, December 1987)

China scored a big diplomatic coup when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made the unilateral announcement in July 1987 agreeing to the so-called global ‘zero option’ by the Soviet Union (ie., elimination of Soviet INF missiles in both Europe and Asia.)  In essence, China ensured the complete elimination of Soviet missile threat to its nuclear arsenal. 

Moscow never quite reconciled with Gorbachev’s compromise. Meanwhile, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union imploded. Yet, by the beginning of 2005, Moscow began to voice unease that INF Treaty banned only the US and Russia from having INF missiles, while other countries were free to deploy them. In 2007, then Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the INF Treaty a relic of the Cold War, and President Putin thereafter proposed in October 2007 that the INF Treaty become multilateral—a global ban on INF missiles.

Now, the political-military relationship between Russia and China is vastly different today. China’s nuclear capability has dramatically improved, especially with submarine-launched ballistic missiles. On the other hand, US’ relations with both Russia and China have become tense while Sino-Russian partnership is at its highest level today in history. Equally, Russia and China have common shared threat perceptions regarding the US. 

Since there are consultative mechanisms between Moscow and Beijing to mitigate substantive concerns regarding deployment or force projection, China is today more concerned with US missiles (and missile defence systems.) Nonetheless, China has to come to terms with the reality that any significant increase in its nuclear warhead numbers henceforth also concerns the security interests of Russia. It is entirely conceivable that Moscow will also strive to maintain its qualitative and quantitative nuclear predominance over China. 

To be sure, China’s rapidly growing missile forces have long troubled the US. China now has the second largest defense budget behind the US – and China’s fire power is largely concentrated in one critical region, East Asia. The trends are worrisome for Washington, too. If in 2000 US defence expenditure was nine times that of China, by 2010, this was down to less than six times, and in 2017 to less than three times. 

Russian officials have repeatedly stated that any future reductions of strategic weapons would have to be multilateral, including the UK, France, and China. Chinese officials have stated that the US and Russia would have to make much deeper cuts before China is prepared to join the process. However, we still don’t know the US position apropos extension of New START Treaty beyond 2021 and in further nuclear reductions.