China’s status as a rising global power has rendered Cold War-era missile pacts between Washington and Moscow obsolete, and President Trump this week signaled the only way such agreements can be preserved is if Beijing also is willing to limit its burgeoning military capabilities as well.
Arms control experts said a relatively brief passage in Mr. Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday evening justifying his withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia was a nod to a vastly complicated topic — how to re-engineer nuclear pacts negotiated with the long-gone Soviet Union for a vastly different modern strategic landscape.
Analysts say that decision — and the implication by the president that any future agreement without China is essentially useless — was smart, but they also caution that there’s little incentive for Beijing to cooperate as it builds out its own missile program, expands its influence in East Asia, and challenges the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower.
And if no new deal is possible, he added, “We will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”
The early signs of a broader nuclear-negotiating umbrella to avoid a new global arms race aren’t promising.
Indeed, state-affiliated media in China already have flatly rejected the idea of a multinational missile agreement, and analysts say both China and Russia could simply stall in the hopes a new U.S. president is elected in 2020.
Mr. Trump’s comments come after the administration last week formally announced it was leaving the 1987 INF deal negotiated by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, an agreement that prohibited both countries from deploying short- and medium-range “tactical” nuclear missiles. The deal covered weapons with a range of about 300 to 3,400 miles and was designed to stop lowering the threshold for a nuclear exchange between the Cold War adversaries in a divided Europe.
But in recent years Russia has been systematically cheating on the deal, administration officials and defense analysts say, and the White House argued the U.S. was placing itself at a strategic disadvantage by continuing to follow the terms of the INF.
Moscow responded angrily to the American exit and pledged to ramp up its missile system.
In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin has boasted of an “invincible” hypersonic missile system that wouldn’t have been covered by the INF. Such weapons are of grave concern to U.S. military and intelligence officials, and the Pentagon last month unveiled a broad new missile-defense strategy aimed at countering those and other cutting-edge weapons.
As the U.S. and Russia begin ramping up for what could become a renewed arms race, specialists say the president is right to include China in the discussion, especially given Beijing’s provocative posture in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region.
While Moscow clearly was skirting the terms of the INF, Beijing has never been constrained by the treaty in the first place.
“They have a total of about 300 nuclear-deployed weapons. About two-thirds of those are on short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
The Chinese also have as many as 1,000 non-nuclear ballistic missiles that fall outside the terms of the INF, Mr. Kimball said. One of those weapons is the so-called DF-26 missile, informally dubbed the “Guam Killer” because of its ability to reach the U.S. territory.
The Chinese government also is actively working on hypersonic weapons similar to the ones Mr. Putin boasted of last year.
In an editorial published late last week, the state-controlled Global Times newspaper said the government will never be a party to a multilateral missile deal.
“As far as China is concerned, the U.S. intends to make the INF treaty a multilateral agreement, which may become an excuse for Washington to exert pressure on Beijing,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “Beijing will never accept the treaty becoming a multilateral agreement. It must reject any request from the U.S. on the issue. Instead of relying too much on land-based missiles for national security, China must diversify its strategic nuclear deterrence. It’s an urgent task.”
Indeed, analysts say that Beijing faces little pressure to come to the table right now. While the White House could try to use a missile pact as a bargaining chip in other negotiations with China — such as ongoing talks on a major trade agreement or the American prosecution of a top official with China’s telecommunications giant Huawei — Beijing may be counting on a new approach from the next administration.
The same also could hold true for Russia, which may wait to see if a potential Democratic president in 2021 tries to reinstate the INF, according to James Carafano, director of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“I would bet every nickel I own that the first thing the Russians and the Chinese are going to do is wait to see if Trump is going to get re-elected. There’s no reason to rush into a negotiation process now,” he said.
Said Mr. Kimball, “What the Chinese have basically said to successive administrations, Republican and Democrat, is, ‘Look, we have a relatively modest-sized arsenal. You have several thousand nuclear weapons. When you and Russia have nuclear arsenals closer to the size of ours, come back and talk to us.”
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