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The road to strategic arms talks with China begins by extending New START
Most Americans would view a policy that would create problems for America's diplomacy, its military and its intelligence as well as require significant budget increases as not being in the country's interest - but the Trump administration is threatening to pursue such a policy by allowing the New START treaty, which constrains U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, to expire early in 2021, so it can pursue a new trilateral U.S.-Russian-Chinese strategic arms agreement in which neither Russia nor China have expressed any interest.
The expiration of New Start will certainly create new strategic uncertainty and tensions and be expensive; it is also likely to make more difficult engaging China and Russia on strategic arms control. There is bilateral support for extending New START in the Congress, which should press the administration to renew it by this summer.
The American adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies to New START.
The treaty has done exactly what it was designed to do: limit nuclear weapons and their means of delivery and maintain strategic confidence between two countries that are existential threats to each other.
The treaty's robust data exchanges and on-site inspections, including short-notice inspections, have worked well, demonstrating that each country is living up the to agreement. The Russians have even acknowledged that two new strategic systems being developed in their nuclear modernization process are covered by the New START agreement and, therefore, would be limited by the treaty's ceilings.
Extending New START by five years, which can be done promptly by an Executive Agreement between the U.S. and Russia, would create no new strategic problems and would be strongly supported by America's NATO allies.
Letting the treaty expire, on the other hand, would certainly create problems.
The Russians, who are further along in their nuclear modernization than the U.S., would be able to add new systems to their arsenal without any constraints beyond their budget. The U.S. military and Intelligence Community would lose valuable information and insights from New START's data exchanges and on-site inspections. They would have to develop new ways to fill this critical information gap, which would require time, significant new budgetary expenditures, and divert attention from such states as China and Iran. Uncertain knowledge about the strategic balance is also likely to introduce new tensions in a bilateral relationship that is already fraught along fault lines from the Middle East to Ukraine to Venezuela.
The administration's goal of engaging the Chinese in a strategic nuclear arms agreement is worthy of support, but it is not something that can be achieved quickly.
Bringing China into a strategic arms limitations agreement will take years of hard work, just like what was needed to produce the original U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements. The Chinese have no experience with such agreements, and it will take time to find the common ground needed to reach commitments that constrain sovereign decisions and require robust on-site inspections to verify their implementation.
At this point, the administration has provided little indication it has thought through what it would take to negotiate reciprocal strategic arms limitations with a state that has a small fraction of the arsenal the U.S. and Russia have. Does the administration think China would agree to lock in what it would see as a very unfavorable balance vis-à-vis the U.S. and Russia? Would the U.S. be open to Chinese demands that all parties to a trilateral agreement have the same ceilings - which would require dramatic cuts by Russia and the U.S.? There are many more issues the administration needs to think and work through before engaging meaningfully with the Chinese bilaterally and then trilaterally with the Russians.
Administration officials are making a profound mistake in trying to advance the goal of engaging China on strategic nuclear arms by holding hostage the extension of New START. China has no stake in New START, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said publicly that Russia will not pressure China to get into a negotiation on strategic arms.
Extending New START, a demonstrably successful arms control agreement, provides a basis and the time to address new strategic arms issues with the Russians, including bringing China into a new strategic arms agreement; letting New START expire, on the other hand, will make future talks with Russia and China on strategic nuclear weapons more difficult and problematic. It will also produce significant new budgetary demands from the Intelligence and Defense Communities and increase strategic uncertainties and tensions.
At this point, the administration's approach to engaging China on strategic arms seems to be more of a slogan in search of a strategy than a plan.
Clearly, letting New START expire is no way to meaningfully engage China. There is bipartisan support in the House and the Senate for the continuation of New Start. Congress should - on a bi-cameral, bipartisan basis - press the administration to extend the treaty by this summer and also make clear it supports this extension as a first step in the necessary goal of engaging China on strategic nuclear weapons talks.
Kenneth C. Brill was a career diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center.