“The end of arms control as we know it”

“why get out of a deal that almost everyone says is vital to keeping US-Russia relations stable? The answer is China.

“We need to make sure that we’ve got all of the parties that are relevant as a component of this as well,” Pompeo told reporters in 2019, clearly alluding to China. ”It may be that we can’t get there. It may be that we just end up working with the Russians on this. But if we’re talking about a nuclear [capability] that presents risks to the United States, it’s very different today in the world.”

It’s a legitimate concern. Beijing has spent the past few years building up its missile arsenal. It has short-, intermediate-, and long-range missiles capable of making any military, including America’s, think twice about attacking it. And while it only has about 300 warheads, far fewer than the US and Russia, it has enough bombs and missiles to carry them to retaliate. If the US wants to drop a nuke on China, China can drop a nuke on the US right back.

That’s a big change from when the US and Russia signed New START almost a decade ago. Many in the Trump administration and outside experts argue it’s worth using the treaty’s imminent demise to pressure Moscow to either stop harming the US, such as with election interference, or get Beijing to join a broader arms control agreement.

In July, top US arms control negotiator Marshall Billingslea extended an “open invitation” to Chinese officials to join the US and Russia in Austria for New START talks, even though Beijing has long said it won’t sign on to New START since its arsenal is so much smaller than Washington’s and Moscow’s.”

“New START — the last major arms control deal between the US and Russia — may expire if China doesn’t join in. It’s a deeply misguided stance, experts say.

“They [the Chinese government] don’t trust arms control,” Tong Zhao, a Beijing-based expert on China’s nuclear program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “They don’t see it as a way to defend Chinese security interests. They view arms control as a way to control others’ military power, so they want to delay Chinese arms control as much as possible.”

“That mainstream view in China is entrenched and cynical,” Zhao continued. “It’ll take decades to change.”

That’s why nuclear experts like Nunn, the former US senator from Georgia, argues the US should at most try to get Beijing to make an anti-nuclear statement along with Washington and Moscow, but not try to get them to sign a new pact before February. “But in the long run,” Nunn made sure to say, “China needs to be involved” in an arms control agreement with the Americans and Russians.

Others are skeptical of the Trump administration’s intentions. While there is merit in discussing arms control with the Chinese — especially on issues of nuclear weapons, hypersonics, and cybersecurity — they say pushing for those talks on such a tight timeline is nothing short of a ruse to kill New START.”

“Three main consequences of the imminent death of arms control as we know it are broadly expected.

First, the US may lose global legitimacy as a leader in stopping nuclear proliferation.”

“Second, the end of an important era in global security fades away with nothing to replace or build on it. “The good old days when arms control was going hand-in-hand with a cooperative security relationship — which basically ties my security to your security — those days are gone, and I don’t see them coming back,” said the University of Hamburg’s Kühn. The only chance of a return to that time, he added, would likely be after Trump, Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave their offices.” 

“Third, yes, the risk of a nuclear exchange between the world’s foremost powers will go up. Few I spoke to, though, argued that possibility would grow immediately.”


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