Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

Will Trump’s Arms Control Dreams for China Come True? Absolutely Not

China has no interest in the kind of arms control being discussed by the Trump administration.

Robert Farley
Will Trump’s Arms Control Dreams for China Come True? Absolutely Not
Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool

My previous column examined some recent work on whether China might be interested in joining an arms control arrangement with the United States and Russia. We can, in fact, imagine certain circumstances in which China might agree to limit its arms production and deployment, depending on reciprocal restrictions from Russia and the United States. But, is it possible to imagine a process that might bring this vision into reality? And perhaps more importantly, is there any reason to think that the Trump administration’s current approach to China will bear any arms control fruit?

The answer to the first is “probably not.” The answer to the second is “absolutely not.”

It is deeply unlikely that China would be willing to accept arms control arrangements which would “lock in” an asymmetric military relationship with the United States. Such arrangements make little sense, given that China’s military position has steadily improved since the 1990s. But perhaps more importantly, such arrangements would face huge domestic obstacles, recalling memories of the “unequal treaties” that the West forced upon China and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Arms control agreements almost always generate significant domestic opposition, whether from the public at large, the defense industrial base, or the uniformed military.

There are also technical problems, especially in the short term. While the Chinese diplomatic service is large and exceedingly professional, it does not have extensive expertise in conducting arms control negotiations. Such negotiations are extremely demanding, requiring a careful two-level game between domestic and foreign interests. They require diplomats to have a command of the technical details of military systems, which itself requires tight trust between military, diplomatic, political, and industrial authorities. Such expertise requires years to develop, and is often politically perilous; Japanese negotiators in the inter-war period, for example, faced death threats for making concessions to their Western counterparts. The sort of interlocking arrangements described in my previous column would be enormously challenging for even the most experienced and accomplished of arms control negotiators. While there were some exceptions, both the great arms control agreements of the interwar period and those at the end of the Cold War were based largely around reciprocity, in which states traded and regulated

The United States has a huge advantage over China in nuclear systems, and China has no interest whatsoever in institutionalizing that disadvantage. It certainly doesn’t help that the loudest voices in the United States in favor of including China in future arms control have also been the voices most consistently hostile to multilateral arms control treaties. This makes it seem as if the inclusion of China is more of a rhetorical poison pill than a policy priority. The final column in this series will investigate the plausibility of the Trump administration’s strategy to compel China to join nuclear arms control negotiations.