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Report

Trump Fixates on China as Nuclear Arms Pact Nears Expiration

The administration insists any future START treaty has to include Beijing as well as Moscow, but experts say there is almost no chance China will agree.

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and US President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is increasingly set on trying to bring China into a key nuclear arms deal with Russia, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, amid fears by arms control experts that the effort is futile and the United States is running out of time to recommit to the Obama-era New START treaty. 

For a year, the Trump administration has floated the idea of pursuing a three-way nuclear arms agreement to replace START, or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, between the United States and Russia, which sets limits on each country’s long-range nuclear weapons. But the administration’s newly appointed arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, is up against a tight timeline and facing new geopolitical headwinds from the global coronavirus pandemic. 

The New START treaty is set to expire in February 2021, and President Donald Trump faces a tough reelection battle against Democratic rival Joe Biden this November, which could mean a change in administrations just a month before that—two hard deadlines that Billingslea faces as he settles into his new role.

But according to a report by the State Department that was provided to Congress in February and obtained by Foreign Policy, the administration is focused broadly on beefing up U.S. nuclear security and “has not yet made a decision regarding whether or how extension of the New START Treaty will be an element of that effort. … This effort must account for changes in the strategic environment, broader concerns regarding Russia’s non-compliance with many of its international obligations and non-adherence to many of its commitments, and the expanding nuclear arsenals of both the Russian Federation and China.”

The report explicitly says that the administration is worried a potential reauthorization of New START could impact a trilateral arms deal with China and Russia. It also expresses concern that China’s nuclear stockpile will double if the current pact is extended, as it does not cover Beijing.

Arms control advocates say the proposal for a trilateral arms deal is too ambitious—perhaps even purposefully designed to sink a treaty that senior Trump administration officials never supported in the first place. Furthermore, a surge in U.S.-China tensions over the pandemic, they say, will likely dash any hopes that Beijing would be ready to negotiate on its nuclear weapons.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said in February that Beijing has “no intention” of joining trilateral arms talks with Russia and the United States despite American entreaties. China has never been party to a nuclear arms control agreement.

“The demand that it should become an expanded trilateral treaty is either a poison pill or at best a delaying action,” said Thomas Countryman, the State Department’s No. 2 arms control official until 2017. “Even without COVID there would be no realistic chance of concluding a trilateral treaty that includes topics never covered in any treaty in the next six months. The chance is reduced from zero to below zero.” 

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen also said he favored a reauthorization of New START on a public call on Wednesday, saying the administration didn’t “have time to renegotiate or negotiate a new treaty.” Even merely reauthorizing the deal, experts said, would take dozens of meetings. It took the administration of former President Barack Obama nine months to ink New START with Russia in 2010. 

But proponents of Trump’s plan say the United States has to include China in future arms control negotiations. After all, Beijing is Washington’s top geopolitical rival in the 21st century, and Moscow, despite its vast nuclear arsenal, is a declining power. Current and former Trump administration officials also reject the charge that they proposed trilateral arms negotiations simply to sink the deal, and insist Beijing could be pushed to the negotiating table with the right amount of pressure. 

“The only thing that really makes this particularly worthwhile is bringing China to the table,” said Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former top National Security Council official on Europe and arms control under Trump. “China is the greatest threat to American security, our way of life, in the world. Russia is a third-world dictatorship, they are a mafia-run gas station with nuclear weapons,” he added. 

“If arms control is going to be a tool of national security, the idea of negotiating another treaty that doesn’t include China, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Trump’s new arms control envoy, Billingslea, faces an uphill battle, especially as pandemic fears have halted regular diplomatic meetings. Other former U.S. officials and arms control advocates have pushed for the administration to reauthorize the deal, amid warnings that the administration’s gamble to draw out the timeline to get increased leverage on adversaries could leave the United States with few checks on Russia’s nuclear arsenal next February.  

Russia remains in compliance with the New START treaty, the State Department assessed in the February report obtained by Foreign Policy. According to a September 2019 data exchange between the two countries, the United States has a combined total of 668 intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers deployed, eclipsing Russia’s 513 with both nations under the limit of 700 weapons. Though Russia has 1,426 warheads on those weapons to the U.S.’s 1,376 (under the treaty limit of 1,550), the United States has 800 launchers and heavy bombers to Russia’s 757, with both nations close to the restricted amount. 

But even as the coronavirus pandemic has scuttled the United Nations’ biggest arms control conference and bilateral engagements, the Trump administration has stuck to an insistence that Beijing should be part of a fresh deal. 

Senior Pentagon officials have raised alarm about China’s future nuclear ambitions, even if its arsenal is significantly smaller than Russia’s. “With its announcement of a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber, China soon will field its own version of a nuclear triad, demonstrating China’s commitment to expanding the role and centrality of nuclear forces in Beijing’s military aspirations,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at an event at the Hudson Institute in May 2019. “While China’s overall arsenal is assessed to be much smaller than Russia’s, this does not make this trend any less concerning.”

Headlining the Trump administration’s concerns on Russia is a basket of five new nuclear systems announced by President Vladimir Putin in a March 2018 speech, some of which it says are not covered by New START. The treaty does not cover strategic weapons that don’t fit the definition of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or heavy bombers. (New START also limits warheads and launchers.) Putin said the new weapons could reach “anywhere in the world,” and that the United States would need to “take account of a new reality.”

The new reality envisioned by Putin two years ago, U.S. officials fear, could include Russia deploying the nuclear-powered Skyfall cruise missile, which left at least seven people dead after a botched test triggered a nuclear reaction in the city of Nyonoksa; a new air-launched ballistic missile; and an underwater vehicle that boasts intercontinental ranges, outside of a fresh New START. Putin said he was ready to reauthorize the 2010 pact during a Russian defense ministry meeting in Moscow late last year.

“Of these five systems, only the Avangard and Sarmat systems are, or will be, accountable under the terms of the New START treaty,” the State Department reported, pointing to a hypersonic glide vehicle and a new intercontinental ballistic missile.

In addition, despite the potential risks of having no constraints on U.S. nuclear forces, according to the report, the administration is also concerned that re-upping the New START agreement could get in the way of its aims for a more comprehensive pact that draws in China. 

In January, the State Department’s top arms control envoy, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford, traveled to Vienna to meet Russian counterparts, but the meeting ended without signs of progress on New START talks. 

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A decision to exit the New START treaty would be another in a series of nixed arms control deals under the Trump administration that began with the move to leave the Iran nuclear deal nearly two years ago. Trump let the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—first established with Russia during the Reagan administration to ban short- and intermediate-range land-based projectiles—expire last year amid concerns over Russian violations. The administration is considering letting the United States leave the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the Pentagon and the Kremlin to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights over more than 30 countries, amid concerns over the impacts on national security despite objections from European allies. 

But those decisions have also been complicated by personnel shuffles within the Trump administration. 

Until this month, the Trump administration had been without a top arms control official since Undersecretary of State Andrea Thompson resigned in September 2019, months following revelations that she previously had undisclosed ties to a Russian agent convicted of promoting Moscow’s interests during the 2016 election cycle. Officials at the time said her departure had nothing to do with the controversy.

Trump announced he would tap Billingslea to be special presidential envoy for arms control on April 10. The president previously nominated Billingslea to be the administration’s top human rights official at the State Department, but the nomination was blocked in the Senate by Democrats who questioned Billingslea’s role in advocating the use of torture while in the Pentagon during the Iraq War.

Democratic lawmakers lashed out at Trump over his appointment of Billingslea, arguing Trump circumvented constitutional requirements to appoint him as special envoy while leaving empty the undersecretary of state for arms control post. The former post requires no Senate confirmation, while the latter does. 

Billingslea, a fixture in conservative foreign-policy circles, previously held a senior post at the Treasury Department under Trump and served in the Pentagon and NATO during the George W. Bush administration. His advocates say Senate Democrats unfairly characterized his role in the Bush-era torture program and praise him as well suited to carry out his new job.

Correction, May 1, 2020: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that the Trump administration is concerned that five new Russian weapons systems are not covered by New START. The administration reported that two of those systems would be accountable under the terms of the arms control treaty.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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

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