China Will Shun Trilateral Arms Control

CHINA WILL HAVE no truck with US efforts to include it in the nuclear arms control agreements that the United States and Russia have traditionally struck bilaterally.

It is not that joining successor agreements to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) or the (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty would unnecessarily crimp Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.

Deployed, stockpiled and retired strategic nuclear weapons, 2018, Russia, China and United States

As the chart shows, China has far fewer strategic nuclear weapons than Russia and the United States, and already larger arsenals of medium- and intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles than either of those two. And it would welcome the United States, in particular, limiting its nuclear weapons. For US President Donald Trump, nuclear arsenals are a central dimension of the new great power competition that shapes his world view.

It is more that Beijing has no interest in subjecting itself to the oversight and compliance frameworks that are part and parcel of such treaties. China’s main nuclear interest at this point, by its own declaration, is deterrence. It has said it wants to keep its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level commensurate with deterring a potential first strike and its national security.

That minimum level has been steadily increasing in recent year, however. Along with the overall professionalising of the People’s Liberation Army, Beijing has been modernising and expanding its nuclear delivery systems. It has an estimated 280 nuclear warheads (the exact number is a state secret). Just over half are land-based with the rest carried on submarines and bombers.

Great powers are nuclear powers. Beijing would not want Washington, and even, if to a lesser extent, Moscow, taking too close a look at what it increasingly has.

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