Trump Wants China on Board With New Arms Control Pact

Obama’s New START arms treaty limited Russian and American nukes. Now, U.S. officials want to rope in Beijing.

U.S. President Donald Trump in Beijing
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Nov. 9, 2017. Thomas Peter - Pool/Getty Images

With the clock ticking to extend the Obama-era New START agreement that sets limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, the Trump administration is favoring a fresh arms control deal that includes China over a straight-ahead reauthorization of the agreement, officials said.

The Trump administration fears that China will more than double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, senior defense officials said, as it is likely to move away from its traditional “minimum deterrence” approach toward a full array of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles.

“Extending New START at this point would probably be the easy thing to do, but it may not be the right thing to do,” a senior defense official told Foreign Policy on a press call this week. “Getting China involved in some sort of an arms control framework is what’s needed today in order to stave off a potential three-way arms race in the future.”

“Why not agree to some restraint today instead of spending all the money [to] build up your nuclear capabilities,” the senior defense official added. “At the end of the day you’re no better off because now you’ve forced Russia and the United States to build up its capabilities.”

But China has been reluctant to come to the table, failing to appear for talks arranged last month by State Department arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea. Some experts fear that by seeking to expand the scope of the talks, the Trump administration is seeking to blow up a third major arms-control treaty.

Last year, the Trump administration pulled out of the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that slashed the number of midrange missiles held by both Russia and the United States. Earlier this year, at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the United States ditched the Open Skies Treaty that allows 35 nations to conduct unarmed overflights to survey one another’s weapons stockpiles.

At a time of heightened international tensions, some arms control experts wonder about the wisdom of trying to rope in China rather than renew the deal with Russia, America’s major nuclear rival.

“Is holding New START hostage the way to get China to come to the table and give up something?” said Pranay Vaddi, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official. “What incentive does China have to stay a smaller nuclear power relative to the U.S.?”

Billingslea, the arms control negotiator, said in May that the United States would be prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” to win an arms race, despite Democrats in Congress hinting at shrinking Pentagon budgets in the future as the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the U.S. economy.

But Washington acknowledged that Moscow remains in compliance with the 2010 New START deal in a report to Congress earlier this year. Though the treaty sets limits on each country’s long-range nuclear weapons, administration officials concerned with the rise of China appeared to openly question the utility of a bilateral pact that doesn’t include Beijing. 

“Whether or not New START is extended or not, we believe that the real problem facing the United States is the growth of China,” the senior defense official said. “Even if it is extended, you’re dealing with a Russia-U.S. problem,” the official added, making the case that the current treaty would not address China’s growing nuclear arsenal.   

The seeming solidification of the U.S. approach toward China comes as the Trump administration is still adding new officials, amid anger from Congress over perceived administration stonewalling of transparency requirements. 

It also comes as Esper, the Pentagon chief, has made a point of checking on U.S. nuclear forces amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the Defense Department to institute a stop-movement order for all American troops earlier this year.

On Wednesday, Esper visited Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, home to the Pentagon’s B-2 bomber fleet, for a classified update on the impact of COVID-19 on American nuclear forces. While the B-2 is set to be retired as the Air Force fields sufficient B-21 stealth bombers to replace it, the Pentagon plans to spend nearly $1.4 billion to upgrade the 1980s-era bomber with modernized digital displays, a second senior defense official said. The Air Force plans to deliver the first operational B-21s by the middle of this decade, the official said, with the first flight planned for the fall of 2022.

Meanwhile, the United States is hoping to use the New START negotiations to make the case to China that it can rise as a responsible great power.

“We would argue that China has a responsibility, even under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to negotiate in good faith and they just haven’t done so up until today,” the first senior defense official said. “Whether that’s persuasive to the Chinese, we’ll have to see.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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