The unintended consequences of Trump’s nuclear gambit

By pressuring China to attend trilateral nuclear talks, the US opened up a much-needed debate on global arms control.

Trump Putin AP
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin stand together before their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018 [AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais]

The United States is pressuring China to participate in three-way arms control negotiations with itself and Russia. Washington’s demand for “trilateral” negotiations comes as The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the most recent bilateral treaty between the US and Russia on the reduction of nuclear weapons, nears its expiration. 

The New START, which was signed by then US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010, entered into force on February 5, 2011. The treaty is due to expire on February 5, 2021, unless both parties agree to extend it for another five years. 

Under President Donald Trump, the US has abandoned numerous arms control agreements, with the Open Skies Treaty being the most recent iteration of this unsettling trend. 

As a result, leaders and diplomats from around the world have expressed their concern about the future of the New START and called for the treaty’s extension. French President Emmanuel Macron stated that “It is critical that the New START… be extended beyond 2021”, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned that if the treaty ceases to exist, “then there would be no instrument in the world to curtail the arms race”. Should the treaty be allowed to expire, a path will be open to another dangerous arms race between Washington and Moscow. 

With Russia putting into service its first regiment of Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles in December 2019, and the US deploying low-yield W76-2 nuclear warheads aboard its Ohio-class submarines in February 2020, it is clear that Washington and Moscow have been working on escalating their nuclear weapons modernisation programmes. 

The New START enables the United States and Russia to carry out up to 18 short-notice, on-site inspections of each other’s nuclear bases and support facilities annually. Thanks to this intrusive inspection regime, we have witnessed some semblance of stability in the two nations’ nuclear arsenals since the ratification of the treaty. For example, it was the New START that permitted the US inspection of the Russian Avangard system in November 2019.

To be clear, Russia has expressed its willingness to extend the New START immediately and without any preconditions. President Putin confirmed this in a December 2019 meeting with defence ministry officials, where he said: “Russia is willing to immediately, as soon as possible, before the year is out, renew this treaty without any preconditions.” 

However, US officials say they have not decided on a possible extension, as they are “focused on addressing a broader range of threats beyond just the weapons subject to the treaty”.  

Rather than committing to keeping the New START alive, Washington insists on having China join its upcoming arms control discussions with Russia, with the possible aim of replacing the treaty.

The discussions are due to take place on June 22 between US arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Vienna. Billingslea stated last month that the US expects that a future arms reduction agreement will be multilateral, telling reporters, “We do absolutely expect that whatever arrangements are reached, the Chinese will be part of a trilateral framework going forward.” Earlier this month, Billingslea even took to Twitter to ask: So, “will China show and negotiate in good faith?”

China has repeatedly refused to partake in these discussions and instead, called on the US to respond to Russia’s call to extend New START without China, for now. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated that the extension “will create conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations”.  

Many suspect that Washington’s insistence on a trilateral agreement is a gambit to scuttle New START, while placing responsibility for the demise of this pact on China and Russia. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed this suspicion. “We noticed that the United States has been dragging China into the issue … whenever it is raised,” with the intention of deflecting from its responsibility, Hua said in Beijing on June 10.  

US officials even debated whether to carry out the first US nuclear tests in 28 years as a way to pressure Russia and China into the talks, after accusing both Russia and China of carrying out secret low-yield nuclear weapons tests. Both countries have categorically denied the accusation.

Russia has also dismissed the possibility of China’s participation in these talks. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, Ryabkov said, “My answer to a direct question on whether or not we think it would be possible to bring China to the table would be a flat and straightforward no … We need to hear loudly and clearly what [the US] administration wants, how it believes it would be possible to do something positive and not just to dismantle one arms-control treaty or arrangement after another.”

Clearly, the Americans have shown a keen interest in China’s participation in these talks, but why?

There are no obvious incentives for China to join the talks, given the disproportionate size of its nuclear arsenal in comparison to that of Russia and the US. Washington and Moscow each possess more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, while Beijing only has approximately 290. Given that New START is primarily a nuclear arms reduction treaty, inviting China to the discussions makes little sense. China has always maintained that its nuclear power is kept at the lowest level necessary for national security, which is not in the same order of magnitude as the huge nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, points out that for China, “it’s very much about the numbers. That’s been their decades-long position: when you come down to our level, then we’ll talk.”  

If the US invitation was not a gambit, and Washington was genuinely after a new, multilateral arms reduction treaty, then the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel would have also been invited to the talks.  

Washington’s obvious gambit, however, has had an unintended consequence. The suggestion of trilateral negotiations on arms reduction raised much-needed questions about the current state of global arms control. 

One such question concerns the issue of new advanced conventional weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, anti-satellite weapons, cyber capabilities and artificial intelligence such as machine learning to name a few. These new-found offensive capabilities, which can cause mass destruction without the use of nuclear weapons, challenge the traditional approaches to arms control and disarmament, which separate nuclear weapons from conventional weapons and capabilities. 

Washington and Moscow seem to agree today that a strategic conventional weapons attack can, under certain circumstances, justify a nuclear response. Thus, China, with its strong conventional weapons capabilities, cannot detach itself from the emerging complexes of nuclear and conventional strategic triangles, even if it rightfully wishes to be excluded from the upcoming New START discussions. But neither can the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and their allies and adversaries. These nuclear powers, and other non-nuclear states, are all affected by the reduction of thresholds for the use of nuclear weapons. 

It is therefore absurd that the world is currently reliant on existing approaches such as New START that focuses solely on the numbers and physical attributes of nuclear weapons, within obsolete binary strategic relationships. In the same vein, it is increasingly clear that we can no longer approach nuclear disarmament primarily through the lens of the US-Russia relationship, and we need to critically question whether such arms control tools are fit for purpose in 2020 or else we might be sleep-walking into a nuclear catastrophe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.