The Trump administration this week disclosed plans to seek an extension of the 2010 New START agreement to limit China’s growing nuclear arsenal and restrict exotic new weapons not covered by the treaty.
Moscow also has balked at the U.S. push to cover its newly developed arms — including a megaton-class nuclear-tipped drone submarine, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an ultra-high-speed missile — under the treaty, which is due to expire next year.
Chris Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and the administration’s senior arms control official, formally requested in December that China join a security dialogue aimed at limiting strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
“They have yet formally to respond to us at all,” a senior State Department official told reporters Monday. “I hope that they will do so soon, and we look forward to having this kind of engagement with them.”
The official said Beijing should be pressured into talks because the People’s Liberation Army is engaged in a major nuclear expansion at the same time that China is refusing to join talks aimed at reining in nuclear threats through arms control.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Friday repeated rejections of the U.S. arms control offer. “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia,” he said.
“It is well known that China follows a defense policy that is defensive in nature,” Mr. Zhao said. “Our nuclear force is always kept at the minimum level required by national security, with an order of magnitude difference from that of the U.S. and Russia.”
The spokesman was commenting on a U.S. statement marking the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which China has signed for “a bold new trilateral arms control initiative” with Beijing and Moscow.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and counterparts from Russia, France and Britain on Tuesday to mark the NPT anniversary.
“We remain committed under the NPT to the pursuit of good faith negotiations on effective measures related to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” the five leaders said.
The administration is using the NPT to try to coax China into talks. The State Department official said the treaty’s Article 6 legally requires signatories “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to ending the nuclear arms race at an early date.”
China’s record of nuclear and conventional arms proliferation is poor, analysts say.
China supplied nuclear technology — ring magnets for centrifuges — and later warhead design information to Pakistan beginning in the 1980s. That technology was used to develop Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. However, a covert Pakistani nuclear supplier group later spread the arms technology to North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.
China also supplied North Korea with launch vehicles that became the transporter-erector launchers for road-mobile North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to a report from the United Nations. Chinese assistance has helped North Korea emerge as a threatening nuclear power with long-range missiles.
Despite U.S. laws calling for the imposition of sanctions for nuclear arms proliferation, China has not been hit with tough sanctions for its arms sale record. Sanctions imposed in the past were minor and were lifted eventually in order to maintain positive bilateral trade relations.
William C. Triplett II, a China analyst and former chief Republican counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that all congressional anti-proliferation sanctions legislation of the 1990s had one goal: to halt Chinese arms proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional arms.
“This came in response to a 100% refusal to abide by any commitment they made to the contrary,” Mr. Triplett said. “As their current busting of the U.N. sanctions on North Korea demonstrate, there is nothing to indicate their method of operation has changed in the intervening 25 years.”
“This will create conditions for other nuclear weapon states to join multilateral disarmament talks,” he said.
Despite rejecting trilateral talks, he said, China is not opposed to nuclear disarmament in principle.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear arms policymaker, said he supports the bid to bring China into strategic arms agreements but added that it would be difficult.
“China has consistently refused any involvement in nuclear arms control agreements involving limitations on deployed strategic nuclear forces,” Mr. Schneider said.
Including China will create unprecedented verification problems. For example, an arms accord would require on-site inspections of China’s Underground Great Wall — a complex of 3,000 miles of tunnels housing mobile ICBMs, production facilities and other nuclear forces.
“I have no idea how you can inspect something like that,” Mr. Schneider said.
Some argue that Chinese involvement in arms control is critical because Beijing is on course to double the size of its nuclear forces in the next 10 years. China’s nuclear forces may already be several times larger than U.S. estimates, Mr. Schneider said. A Chinese military parade last year included displays of strategic weaponry that exceeded estimates of Beijing’s nuclear warhead arsenal.
U.S. intelligence estimates for China have remained constant at around 150 to 200 warheads despite the addition of significant numbers of multiple-warhead missiles.
“My estimate is that within a decade China will have more deployed nuclear weapons — strategic and nonstrategic — than we will have,” Mr. Schneider said.
Adm. Charles A. Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress last month that the nuclear buildup is part of a plan by China to achieve regional dominance. The nuclear arms increase Beijing’s power projection capabilities and “support their aspirations to impose China’s will throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” Adm. Richard said.
“We must remain postured to counter Chinese coercion and subversion, assure our regional allies and partners, and protect our national security interests as international law allows,” he said.
The senior State Department official was noncommittal about whether New START with Russia can be extended. The treaty, which limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads, will expire on Feb. 5, 2021, but can be extended by mutual agreement.
New Chinese and Russian weaponry are complicating the treaty calculations in Washington. Beijing and Moscow are rapidly building hypersonic missiles capable of flying faster than missile defense interceptors. By contrast, the United States is not building up its nuclear arsenal and remains within the New START limits.
The nuclear modernization program includes replacing aging delivery systems with new missiles, submarines and bombers.
“It’s imperative that an answer be found to those Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups if we are to forestall the kind of arms race that their decisions could perhaps prompt,” the official said.
The Trump administration approached Russia in December about the future of New START. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow is open to extending the treaty and would be willing to enter talks aimed at reaching an extension by the end of the year.
Russian officials earlier said a treaty extension was unlikely, based on U.S. demands that Moscow include its new strategic arms in the accord.
The Trump administration pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty over what it said were Russian violations, specifically deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile. Administration officials also have questioned Russia’s adherence to the terms of New START.
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