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The US Wants China In A Nuclear Weapons Treaty

June 10, 2020

As the US military is positioning itself in Asia to deter China’s territorial claims another bold move is taking shape on the diplomatic front. On June 9, a Tuesday, the Trump administration’s appointed negotiator for nuclear weapons Amb. Marshall S. Billingslea invited China to join upcoming talks with Russia for extending the New START. Less than a day later Billingslea responded to the Chinese media rejecting his offer and cast shade on the US’ biggest geopolitical rival. “Achieving Great Power status requires having Great Power responsibility,” he tweeted, albeit without withdrawing his offer with a closing “Seat waiting for China in Vienna.”

Without amendments or an extension to New START the collapse of the treaty can launch another volatile nuclear arms race between Russia and the US. This will undo Russia-US diplomacy going back 40 years that was aimed at limiting nuclear arsenals whose size could reach warheads in the tens of thousands. Although Moscow welcomed a five-year extension for New START, which limits nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery platforms, Washington, DC’s broadening struggle against China means it wants to rope in the People’s Republic and establish a three-way New START for the 2020s.

Amb. Billingslea’s tweeted response to Chinese media is seen below:

 

China’s foreign ministry spared a few words regarding New START without being too specific. According to its spokesperson having China join the talks is “just what the US does when it wants to deflect responsibilities to others.” Beneath these measured exchanges from Chinese and US officialdom is a worrying context that motivates the US’ eagerness to force China’s hand. This decade saw the unrestricted growth of the PLA’s missile arsenal culminating with the immense October 1 military parade in Beijing last year. The US military is threatened by intermediate and medium-range road mobile ballistic missiles such as the DF-21/21D and the DF-26; both can be armed with nuclear warheads and are able to evade and maneuver past anti-missile defenses. The US military also knows the PLA’s nuclear arsenal might be small but its launch systems are becoming more advanced. During the October 1 military parade two new road mobile ICBMs took part, the DF-31AG and the DF-41.

The variety of China’s strategic missiles earned it a stern warning from the Trump administration when it released a scathing 16 page document on strategies to counter China last month. In the document, titled United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, the authors stress the importance of China joining “arms control and strategic risk reduction discussions” for the sole reason its military has a growing arsenal of intermediate-range missiles. Meanwhile, the PLA’s other branches have concrete plans for launching nuclear attack submarines and nuclear missile submarines in the coming years while a new strategic bomber with possible stealth characteristics will complete China’s own “nuclear triad” for deterrence.

The Trump administration began to slowly undermine its arms control treaties with Russia since 2018, the same year President Vladimir Putin unveiled new strategic weapons designed for beating anti-missile defenses. By 2019 members of the Trump administration were vocal in their willingness to put the decade old New START treaty on ice since its verification measures were inadequate. Talks are now scheduled to take place in Vienna for either overhauling or replacing New START, whose commitments are set to expire in February 2021, but the US’ insistence on having China join may endanger any positive outcome. There are neither incentives nor tools available to compel China’s participation in Vienna and preexisting agreements on Chinese ballistic missile technology aren’t in place. Beijing’s approach has been to refuse the US and that’s that.

The risks of a failed New START treaty can’t be ignored. Absent normal diplomatic channels and cooperation between Moscow and Washington, DC, the world may be gripped by a nuclear arms race even more volatile than the Cold War during the 1950s.

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