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China needs to play straight on New START nuclear treaty

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China is increasingly becoming a major stumbling block in the effort to renew or at least extend the New START treaty between the United States and Russia. Time is running out on the negotiations between the two strategic nuclear superpowers; the treaty is set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021. 

Washington views China’s growing nuclear arsenal with increasing concern and wants Beijing to participate in the New START renewal talks. Yet, China continues to portray itself as a secondary nuclear power, no better than France or Britain, with roughly a fifth the number of warheads in the Russian and American arsenals. It will go no further than to promise that China would gladly participate in an arms reduction exercise if the United States and Russia agree to come down to its own levels, knowing full well that neither country is prepared to do so.

China’s posture is disingenuous, to say the least. It appears on track to double, perhaps even triple, the number of its nuclear warheads over the course of the next decade. Indeed, China is acting true to longstanding form. It continues to plead that it is only a developing country, focusing on its per capita Gross Domestic Product rather acknowledging the reality that it constitutes the world’s largest economy in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s New START negotiator, rightly has called out China for its refusal to participate in the New START renewal talks. Though Russia characterized his decision to have an empty chair in place of the Chinese delegation during last month’s New START as little more than a stunt, Billingslea actually was making an exceedingly serious point: The strategic nuclear balance of 2020 is simply not that of 1991, when the original START Treaty came into force, or even when New START was ratified in 2010. Whatever its spokesmen and officials may argue, China’s strategic nuclear force no longer can be ignored and, unlike those of France and Britain, it is projected to grow dramatically through the 2020s and beyond.

Indeed, even in the 1990s, when by all accounts China’s nuclear capability was quite limited, China was not reluctant to brandish its nuclear weapons. Chinese officials would question visiting senior American officials and think-tankers whether they would “trade Los Angeles for Taipei.” In one case, the American visitor made it clear that an attack on Los Angeles would mean the end of China. At issue now, in light of China’s growing arsenal, is whether such a response would be equally credible in 10 or more years’ time. 

Under the terms of New START, both the United States and Russia are limited to 1,500 deployed warheads. Many analysts estimate China’s arsenal to total just under 300 warheads. Nevertheless, China soon will field the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is estimated to carry between three and six multiple independent reentry vehicles. Authoritative unclassified analyses also estimate that China will field at least 18 of those missiles, bringing the total number of warheads to about 350. China is unlikely to limit its forces to that level, however. Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated in May 2019 that China probably would double its nuclear stockpile over the next decade. And there have been calls in China for production of 100 DF-41 missiles with six warheads each, to bring China’s total ICBM capability to about 1,000 warheads. 

Even if China wishes to expand its nuclear arsenal, there is precedent for its doing so while accepting lower weapons and warhead ceilings than those allocated to the United States and Russia. Japan did exactly that in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, when it agreed that the tonnage of its capital ships would total only three-fifths those of the United States and Britain. Japan was a rising power, just as China is today. Indeed, unlike China, Japan already had defeated a major power, Russia, a quarter-century earlier. Moreover, its navy had delivered what was probably the decisive blow in the Russo-Japanese war when it vanquished the Russian navy in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima. Nevertheless, Japan was prepared to accept second-class naval status, at least for the 15-year duration of the treaty. 

The Washington treaty did not prevent Japan from refusing to extend it when it expired in 1936.  Nevertheless, even then there was a major debate within the Japanese government over the question of renewal, with some senior naval officers arguing in favor of a second naval treaty. In contrast, what is especially a cause for worry today is China’s absolute refusal to consider any ceiling on its nuclear forces for any duration, thereby lending credibility to those who argue that, repeated denials notwithstanding, China ultimately seeks strategic nuclear parity with Moscow and Washington.

Recognizing that Russia is far closer to China than is the United States, the Trump administration has turned to Moscow for assistance in bringing China to the negotiating table. That will never happen. Russia and China are close in no small part because of their shared hostility toward Washington. In any event, the appeal to Moscow appears to be nothing more than another example of the administration desperately trying to demonstrate that Vladimir Putin can serve as a trusted go-between. Somewhat to its credit, Russia thus far has not played along with Washington’s wishes; were it to do so, it might well be suspected of playing a double game. 

Ultimately, China needs to come clean on its own. Its refusal to join America and Russia in serious arms control talks is yet another example of why China has some distance to go before it can be considered a “responsible stakeholder” within the international community.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China Intercontinental ballistic missile New START Nuclear weapon Russia Vladimir Putin

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