The United States, China, and the Future of Arms Control

Recent Features

Interviews | Risk Intelligence | Security | East Asia

The United States, China, and the Future of Arms Control

Tong Zhao discusses prospects for strategic arms control between the United States and China.

The United States, China, and the Future of Arms Control
Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool

The Trump administration has made strategic arms control with China an important component of its diplomatic agenda with Beijing. As the end of the U.S.-Russia 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) looms in February 2021, U.S. officials insist that any extension of that agreement for five years must include China. Beijing has, meanwhile, rejected U.S. calls to participate in arms control, citing its much smaller nuclear arsenal in absolute terms and by emphasizing a unique responsibility for Washington and Moscow to pursue arms control.

To better understand the prospects for U.S.-China arms control, The Diplomat’s senior editor, Ankit Panda, spoke to Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

The Diplomat: As far as you can tell, what is driving the Trump administration’s push to get China involved in strategic nuclear arms control talks?

Tong Zhao: There are at least two factors. One is the fact that Beijing is quickly narrowing the gap in its comprehensive military power with Washington. China’s nuclear modernization has also been taking place at a pace faster than the other major nuclear powers. Over the past three decades, China is the only nuclear weapons state under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to increase its nuclear arsenal, which has probably become the third largest in the world today. Given the opacity over Chinese programs, Washington worries about the future trajectory and the eventual goal of the Chinese nuclear buildup.

The other factor is that in recent years Washington has come to the realization that Beijing is reinforcing a set of ideological values that are different from what Washington embraces and that make clashes of perspectives and interests between the two major powers harder to avoid. On top of that, Washington believes Beijing is increasingly willing to leverage its growing military power to achieve its more assertive foreign and security policy goals. This increases the American sense of urgency to prevent China from further tilting the balance of strategic military power. Arms control is one of the tools chosen by Washington to achieve this goal. For President Trump, the hope that arms control may also help save money by avoiding an expensive arms race with China strikes a chord.

However, the approach the Trump administration has used to promote arms control with China has caused serious suspicion about its intentions. Beijing watches Washington withdrawing from many of today’s key arms control agreements and concludes this White House simply does not believe in the concept of arms control. Beijing has a strong conviction that Washington is using China as an excuse to achieve the real goal of dissolving the existing U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms control regime, so that Washington would have a free hand to compete more effectively with Beijing. Therefore, China views the U.S. push for trilateral arms control as purely insincere, hypocritical, and hostile against China.

Strategic nuclear arms control in a bilateral context is not something China has a lot of experience with. Is there expertise within the Chinese government on these issues? 

The last nuclear arms control agreement that China negotiated was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty almost 25 years ago. Compared with the United States and Russia, China’s experience and expertise is no doubt much less. For China’s participation in future arms control negotiation, three levels of expertise may be relevant.

First is technical expertise over specific verification technologies. China has talented scientists and engineers following the international research on verification technologies and their technical capacity should not be underestimated.

Second is policy expertise — the ability to propose concrete arms control options that fit with China’s unique military capabilities and specific security needs. In this regard, Chinese research on forward-looking, constructive arms control options is rare. The compartmentalization among various stakeholders within the Chinese bureaucracy also creates multiple veto players and makes it hard to reach domestic consensus over what are acceptable arms control options. Therefore, the domestic bureaucratic system lacks the expertise to initiate concrete arms control proposals.

Third is strategic expertise — the ability to objectively examine the usefulness of arms control as a general approach to promote China’s strategic interests. This expertise is the more important as it determines China’s overall attitude on arms control but is seriously lacking. China’s geopolitical strategists are by and large unfamiliar with and deeply skeptical of arms control as a concept: they do not think arms control can help stabilize its strategic relationship with Washington or help achieve cooperative security. They view arms control as a tool often used by the stronger party to undermine the security of the weaker.

For these reasons, cooperative capacity building can be critically important to help enhance necessary expertise in China to pave the ground for China’s gradual embracement of arms control. But such expertise can hardly be built overnight.

The U.S.-Russia 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, is set to expire next February unless the two countries agree to extend it for five years. How would China view the lapse of such a treaty?

China has been a beneficiary of the bilateral U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control process, including the New START, though it appears reluctant to openly acknowledge this. New START renders the U.S. strategic nuclear capabilities more transparent and the trajectory of their future development more predictable, making it easier for China to develop its counterstrategy accordingly. If New START lapses, both Washington and Russia may feel the pressure to maintain a larger arsenal than otherwise necessary to compensate for the loss of predictability in the other’s capabilities. If U.S. and Russian arsenals grow larger in the absence of New START, China would also have to respond by investing more in its own capabilities than otherwise necessary. All three countries would likely end up spending more and feeling less secure.

That said, China has no interest in joining trilateral arms control to avoid this lose-lose-lose outcome. China strongly suspects that the Trump administration has made up its mind to end New START because it wants to compete with China more freely and win. If New START indeed lapses, China would feel that it is all by design by U.S. politicians and that China has no influence to affect the outcome no matter how it reacts. The mutual blame game between Beijing and Washington would intensify.

For now, knowing that a Biden administration would try to extend the treaty, China probably feels even less need to respond to the Trump administration’s invitation to join the party.

Another issue pertaining to arms control that involved China was the end of the INF Treaty. Though U.S. withdrawal was predicated on Russia’s alleged violation, concern about China’s large missile arsenal had long been cited by Americans who saw INF as out-of-date — especially in modern day Asia. How does China view the consequences of the end of the INF Treaty?

From the Chinese perspective, the collapse of the INF Treaty was due to a U.S. strategic decision to pull out of the treaty because it no longer serves U.S. interests; Washington found an excuse to do so by citing the alleged Russian violation.

Believing that the U.S. policy is increasingly driven by a hostile desire to contain China’s rise and undermine China’s security, Beijing has little interest to compromise. For Chinese strategists, land-based medium- and intermediate-range missiles (the types of weapons prohibited by INF) are critically important for China to defend its territorial integrity over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and other core interests in the Asia Pacific region. China’s will to maintain its advantage in such military capabilities is strong. On top of that, Beijing has far more experience than Washington in developing and operating such missiles over the past few decades and feels confident about its future potential to outcompete Washington in this area.

Beijing understands that Washington is at a huge geographical disadvantage to deploy its own missiles in this region and faces tremendous challenges in negotiating forward-deployment agreements with its allies. These geographical and political challenges provide China with potential military options to undermine the effectiveness of possible U.S. missile deployment in the future. Beijing also feels optimistic that it can leverage its economic, diplomatic, and military power to compete with Washington over influencing the U.S. allies’ decisions on such deployment. The end of the INF Treaty makes the bilateral battle between Beijing and Washington uglier and more wide-ranging.

If U.S.-China competition is set to intensify, arms control might be one way to limit the consequences of that competition. What are the most promising areas where the United States and China might find some common ground to begin moving toward arms control?

I very much agree with the frame of this question. Arms control should be a tool to help manage the intensity and consequences of the U.S.-China competition and not as an instrument for the United States to help itself win the competition. The current U.S. approach sends the wrong message to Beijing.

Given China’s skepticism toward arms control and U.S. strategic intention, Washington needs to give China a clearer idea what it wants China to sign up to. A blank commitment to a vague concept of trilateral arms control appears intimidating to Beijing, whereas concrete proposals in areas of clear common interests could be more promising to get talks started. For instance, China appears quite interested in discussing cooperative efforts to manage military crises and prevent inadvertent conflict escalation, including possible measures to address the escalation risks introduced by new military technologies. This presents an opportunity to discuss potential regulations over hypersonic weapons, cyber capabilities, and anti-space technologies.

If Washington wants more ambitious arms control measures with China, it should be willing to also discuss American military capabilities that concern Beijing. Missile defense would be a good topic to start with. My new Carnegie report on missile defense offers some specific options for bringing the two sides closer toward addressing this long-standing obstacle. In addition, military transparency and behavior arms control — measures that regulate operational behavior as opposed to military capabilities — are promising areas to explore.

This interview has been edited.