Trump Seeks to Add China to New Arms Treaty

Beijing rejects joining talks with U.S., Moscow on New START extension

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping
U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping / Getty Images
June 3, 2019

The Trump administration wants China included in arms control talks on extending the 2010 New START strategic arms treaty despite Beijing's reluctance to engage in multilateral arms negotiations.

Senior administration officials on Wednesday outlined the new arms control approach by the president summarized as focusing on arms control a means to an end—and not the process itself—culminating in an agreement designed to enhance U.S. security.

Tim Morrison, White House National Security Council director for weapons of mass destruction, said the world has moved on from Cold War-style bilateral arms treaties that cover limited types of nuclear weapons and only certain ranges of missiles.

"The president wants effective arms control that delivers real security to the American people and our allies, and to achieve this, he has concluded that we must negotiate with both Russia and China," Morrison said during a conference on nuclear issues at a Washington think tank.

NSC staff are coordinating efforts with the State Department and Pentagon to draw up options for how to proceed, he said, adding that a decision on whether to seek to extend the New START treaty would be made sometime next year.

New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads on land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and bombers. The treaty expires in February 2021.

Morrison said the administration is committed to seeking security through arms control. "But unlike some true believers who worship at the altar of the current arms control apparatus, we see arms control as a means to an end, and not an end unto itself," he said.

Russia has not violated the limits of New START directly but is developing several new weapons systems that circumvent the intention of the treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals for strategic stability.

For example, Moscow is building a high-speed underwater drone submarine, called Kanyon by the Pentagon, that is outfitted with a megaton-class warhead—a megaton is the equivalent of a million tons of TNT. The weapon is not covered by the treaty. Other new weapons include the Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that will carry more than 10 warheads; a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missile, and a hypersonic strike weapon capable of maneuvering to avoid current missile defenses.

Morrison said based on Russian statements creating a "false narrative" that the United States is not adhering to New START, Moscow may not be interested in extending New START.

Russia also violated the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile called the SSC-8. The treaty banned all ground-launched missiles with ranges between 310 miles and 3,420 miles.

After six years of seeking Russian return to INF compliance, the Trump administration announced it will pull out of the treaty Aug. 2 because the United States is the sole adherent while Russia violated the pact, and China is not a party to its limits and has deployed hundreds of INF-range missiles.

"We could not permit the situation to persist where the United States was the only country in the world effectively constrained by the INF Treaty," Morrison said.

Another factor behind the administration's new approach to arms control is the aggressive nuclear forces buildup by both China and Russia.

Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, revealed new details of both states' nuclear buildups prior to Morrison's remarks. Ashley said China is on course to double its warhead stockpile in the next decade while Russia is building an array of new nuclear arms unconstrained by arms agreements.

Any new arms agreement under Trump must be deemed in the U.S. national security interest. "For example, we would benefit from an agreement that halts the growth of Russian and Chinese nuclear stockpiles while not undermining our ability to deter an attack," Morrison said.

China has said it is seeking to avoid an arms race, but Morrison noted that "we're the only one not racing" in the current strategic environment.

Also, a new arms agreement must constrain adversaries' current and planned military capabilities and prevent unnecessary military competition, he said.

Russia's scuttling of the INF treaty means the bulk of Russian nuclear forces are exempt from arms control, and Moscow likely would seek to use arms control to gain U.S. concessions, such as limits on U.S. missile defenses, something Morrison said Trump has rejected.

"The president has been clear, we will not negotiate away our missile defenses, not ever," he said, noting that Moscow has 68 nuclear-tipped missile defense interceptors deployed around Moscow.

Bringing China into strategic arms talks is part of the new era a strategic competition, Morrison said, noting that it no longer makes sense for China to be unconstrained by arms control measures.

By contrast, President Obama in 2012 was overheard telling then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" in making concessions to Russia limiting U.S. missile defenses after his reelection that year.

Beijing has already flatly rejected calls to join U.S.-Russian arms talks.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said May 16 that, "on this issue, China's position is clear: we will not participate in any negotiation for a trilateral nuclear disarmament agreement."

Chinese thinking on arms control talks was revealed in a classified State Department cable recounting an internal discussion of nuclear topics between U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing in 2005. The cable quoted then-Chinese Assistant Foreign Ministry He Yafei as defending Chinese secrecy surrounding its nuclear forces, saying "now is not the time for China to tell others what we have." The Chinese official then said that if China were to reveal even the size of its nuclear arsenal, the disclosure would eliminate its deterrent value.

James H. Anderson, assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities, said at the conference that arms control needs to include verification and enforcement provisions. Based on China's missile and nuclear buildup, "it is altogether fitting and legitimate to seek to include them and bring them to the table with Russia as the president has articulated," Anderson said.

Thomas Dinanno, a deputy assistant secretary of state involved in arms control, said effective arms control requires willing partners who can be trusted.

For the United States, "compliance with the provisions of existing and future arms control agreements is essential to their success, and therefore to national security," Dinanno said.

U.S. national laboratories are working on new technologies designed to assist in verifying future arms agreements, he said.

Morrison said the Russians have refused to discuss the threatening new strategic arms and as a result "we've got to establish whether or not the Russians are interested in extending the treaty."

"But I think the higher priority is to look at the totality of the Russian and the Chinese [nuclear forces] programs because we have so much time left on the clock for a New START and figure out can we get to an arms control agreement that covers more of the systems that threaten the United States, not just the systems that Russia, for example, wants to talk about," he said.

Chinese statements opposing participation in arms talks does not mean Beijing cannot be persuaded to join negotiations in the future.

"From our perspective, we look at the Chinese words, and if the Chinese are truthful about their objectives, if they are interested in a minimum deterrent policy, if they truly have a no-first-use policy, if they are interested in being a responsible, global stakeholder, then they'll be interested in talking to us about arms control," Morrison said.

China has been a major proliferator of nuclear weapons, providing Pakistan with nuclear weapons design and production capabilities that were then covertly transferred to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. The cooperating violated the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty yet China was never held to account for the nuclear proliferation.

Chinese mobile missile launchers also were sold to North Korea and are now used for transporting and launching North Korean ICBMs.

Morrison also said Trump is unlikely to agree to New START extension without including curbs on Russia's estimated 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Also, solely limiting nuclear missiles is not good arms control, he said.

"What sense does it make to limit a Russian submarine launched ballistic missile that could range [the continental United States] from a submarine platform but not to limit a Russian sea launch cruise missile that could arrange [the continental United States] from a submarine platform?" Morrison said.

"That's what we do right now. Under the New START Treaty, we limit submarine launched ballistic missiles, but we've excluded Russian Sea launch cruise missiles. That just doesn't continue to make sense and we watched the Russians exploit those loopholes."