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China unwilling to join trilateral arms control initiative with US, Russia

USA believes it is "imperative to address" Russian and Chinese proliferation and buildup of new weapon types

nuclear weapons | United States | Russia



has said it has no intention to participate in the trilateral arms control negotiations with the and Russia, stating its nuclear force is always kept at the minimum level "with an order of magnitude difference" from that of the other two countries.

Last year, the US had listed two reasons for its withdrawal from 1987's Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty -- breaking of it by developing new weapon classes, and not being covered by its scope. While the USA would like to arrange a new tripartite agreement covering the possession of nuclear weapons, is having none of it.

Indeed, the USA warns of a nuclear arms race as and China introduce new missiles and increase their strategic nuclear inventories. When the INF Treaty was implemented in 1987, the world was a very different place. Since then, China's missile arsenal and capability have advanced in leaps and bounds.

James H Anderson, acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy at the Department of Defense, said before a US House Armed Services Committee hearing in late February that China will "at least double" the size of its nuclear weapon arsenal in the next ten years. One way of achieving this is through the use of multiple warheads on missiles like the DF-41.

Anderson spoke of China's "most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history". He added: "China's nuclear forces include a mix of strategic-range systems capable of striking the US homeland as well as theater-range forces capable of threatening allies and partners, US bases and forces in the Indo-Pacific region."

The USA thus believes it is "imperative to address" Russian and Chinese proliferation and buildup of new weapon types. Hence, President Donald Trump is proposing a bold trilateral arms control initiative, an extension of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement signed with Moscow in 2010.

It limits the USA and to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, but the treaty will expire on 5 February 2021 unless mutually renewed.On 9 March in Washington DC, the State Department gave a special briefing on the possibility of extending New START. A senior spokesperson said next-generation arms control must "go beyond just the traditional bilateral context that we all became used to during the Cold War, and that it covers not only more parties than before, specifically bringing in China as well as Russia, but also that it cover more systems than is currently covered by New START".

The official continued: Bringing China into the mix is critical here as well. China has enjoyed having both Moscow and Washington constrained by strategic arms control, and it is on track to at least double the size of its arsenal over the next few years. That is not just a question of numbers, although its numbers are increasing quite notably, but it's also a question of the range and diversity of delivery systems, and a range of systems that are both - that are capable both of nuclear delivery and non-nuclear delivery.

"Beijing has a very different perspective, however.Zhao Lijian, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, stridently stated, "China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the US and Russia ... It is well known that China follows a defense policy that is defensive in nature. Our nuclear force is always kept at the minimum level required by national security, with an order of magnitude difference from that of the US and Russia.

"The Washington-based Arms Control Association estimates that Russia has 6,490 stockpiled nuclear weapons, the USA 6,185, France 300, China 290, the UK 200, Pakistan 160, India 140, Israel 90 and North Korea 30.China evades such invitations to talks, even while it is making a major push to introduce new missile types like the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, and DF-31AG and DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

China's DF-17 hypersonic missile is also said by some to be capable of carrying a nuclear device.The People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is not seeking parity with the USA or Russia in terms of nuclear weapon numbers. Nonetheless, the quantity of the missiles that the PLA showed at its 1 October 2019 parade exceeded foreign estimates, leading to suggestions that China's arsenal may already be considerably larger than what is generally accepted.

Zhao added, "China will continue to work with all parties to strengthen communication and coordination within such frameworks as the mechanism of five nuclear-weapon states [China, France, Russia, UK, and USA], and discuss a wide range of issues concerning global strategic stability".China has indicated it will encourage multilateral, but not bilateral or trilateral, agreements. One example is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of (NPT), which this year marks 50 years and has 190 member nations.

Beijing's official line is that it is not against nuclear disarmament in principle.Reinforcing this message, the online English version of the PLA Daily said, "China's attitude is very clear: China's nuclear force is always kept at the minimum. It is neither fair nor reasonable for China to participate in the arms control negotiations between the US and Russia."How is the USA trying to engage China? The US State Department invited China on 19 December to conduct a strategic security dialogue, which would include the nuclear arms issue, but it is "yet formally to respond to us at all".It is ramping up pressure on Beijing.

The American official said, "I think we can all perhaps help make that more likely, rather than less likely, by drawing attention to the fact that they are simultaneously building up their nuclear arsenal and refusing to talk about how to rein in the threats that that creates through arms control."Increasing tensions between China and the USA are viewed as a further reason why the two sides should talk about nuclear arsenals. "They place great stock in how the rest of the world views them as a responsible power and a great power, and I would encourage them to behave as great powers do and as we and the Russians are already modeling by sitting down and talking together about these sorts of things," the US representative noted.

However, China is adamant it will not join such negotiations. This by itself will have a constraining effect on Russian-American arms controls. The US State Department warned: "If a serious answer is to be found to these range of issues, I would argue that all three need to be in the mix somehow, because what each party will think it needs to do vis-a-vis the excluded party will constrain what they can agree to as between themselves."Beijing's line is that the USA and Russia should reduce their nuclear inventories first.

Then, Zhao said, "This will create conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join multilateral disarmament talks."China is concerned about not just American stockpiles. There is mistrust between Beijing and Moscow, causing them to have on-site inspection arrangements of a sort, and missile launch notification agreements. The US official observed, "And what that signals to me is both that they see some reason to be concerned about each other's arsenals...but also that it's not at all impossible to engage China in transparency and confidence-building measures, which is a part of the arms control undertaking.

"China also has an eye on India, which is strengthening its nuclear deterrence with elements such as ballistic missile submarines.A PLA Daily commentary said the Chinese military presently has enough to prevent "bullying", but it still requires certain capabilities to improve deterrence. The article said, "To enhance China's strategic counterbalance in the region and maintain China's status as a great power and protect national security, China has to beef up and develop a reliable nuclear deterrence capability.

"Intent on increasing warheads to improve its second-strike survivability, China claims to be a responsible nuclear power. For instance, it insists it will adhere to a "No First Use" policy whereby it would never be the first party to launch Yet, China has a poor record on nuclear proliferation. For example, it helped Pakistan with ring magnets for centrifuges and warhead design data in the 1980s. Pakistan later spread nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Syria.Furthermore, North Korea's large transport-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles for ICBMs were also built in China.

There is little evidence that China has fully rolled back support for North Korea's missile program.Asia's nuclear order - encompassing China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea - does not rely on treaties, regulations, and verifications, but rather self-restraint (albeit, North Korea's lack of self-discipline resulted in sanctions).

Rod Lyon, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), wrote: "China is a good example of that Asian model of nuclear order - hence its small nuclear arsenal, few nuclear tests, no-first-use commitment, tolerance of large numerical asymmetries vis-a-vis its possible nuclear rivals, and slow development of its nuclear triad.

In a manner characteristic of that Asian order, Chinese nuclear weapons sit in the strategic background rather than the foreground."Lyon's assessment continued: "What we're witnessing, then, is the collision of two separate and distinct models of nuclear restraint: on one hand, what we might call the 'Euro-litigious' model; on the other, the model of voluntary self-restraint. China may have few runs on the board in relation to the first model, but it has plenty in relation to the second."

Lyon gave two possible reasons why China might eventually join negotiations: process and outcome. By process, he meant that China would benefit from sitting around the table with Russia and the USA, cementing its place as a nuclear peer. However, this approach would undermine China's position that it is already a responsible nuclear power.

As for outcomes, Lyon said any future agreement would shape China's arsenal. However, treaties such as START were generally about capping numbers of long-range nuclear missiles, a class that China does not have many of to start with. Would its stocks be capped at a lower limit than Russia or America, for example? Beijing would hardly accept that, and China would view this as containment codified within a formal treaty.

The regulatory issue becomes stickier when different weapon classes are considered. China has asymmetric strengths such as short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The ASPI academic mused too: "China and Russia would, I think, be reluctant to sign an agreement legitimizing deployment of US intermediate-range systems which could target their homelands, when their own intermediate-range systems can't reach the continental US."

Yet another serious issue, one that would seem intractable, is that a trilateral nuclear arms agreement would require verification via on-site inspections. It is inconceivable the PLARF would allow foreign observers into its secretive several-thousand-mile network of tunnels housing TELs, missiles, equipment, and production facilities. China would never permit foreigners running amok in this way.

Lyon added that "China has not traditionally relied much upon nuclear weapons to coerce other players. Its conventional and paramilitary forces are well placed to serve in that mission. And, of course, Beijing is happy to 'weaponize' economic ties and Chinese indigenous communities when it needs to.

In short, it already has such a range of coercive levers close to hand that an expanding nuclear arsenal - in and of itself, regardless of final size - would suggest a less self-restrained Beijing in future."There is already a strategic competition. The USA, responding to China and Russia, will speed up the development and deployment of new weapons such as low-yield nuclear weapons, plus it is developing the B-21 Raider long-range stealth strategic bomber.

China has successfully avoided arms control in the past, and it will continue to do so. It is in Beijing's best interests not to limit itself voluntarily, so the USA will have to dig in for the long haul if it wants even a modicum of progress in drawing China into negotiations.The USA's comment that it is "cautiously optimistic" that it can move towards trilateral engagement "in the very near future" seems a mere pipe dream, given the murmurings already emerging from Beijing.

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First Published: Mon, March 16 2020. 11:37 IST