China’s Counterproductive Response on New START

May 7, 2019 | 8:24 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wanted China to participate in discussions on extending the New START Treaty, which places limits on the size of the nuclear arsenals of the countries who sign it. The current treaty, which expires in 2020, is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia. Pompeo said the administration wants to broaden participation in the treaty to include China.

When asked at a recent press conference, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said his government “will not participate in any negotiation for a trilateral nuclear disarmament agreement.” That’s unfortunate. It’s also counterproductive. China lost an opportunity to educate Americans, and the rest of the world, about its comparatively reserved nuclear weapons policies. It lost an opportunity to be an international leader on nuclear disarmament and to achieve numerical parity with the United States and Russia. And, if the ministry’s own assumptions about the disingenuous motives of Trump administration officials are correct, it may have helped Trump pin the blame for failed negotiations between Russia and the United States on China.

Silence is Acquiescence

Most Americans don’t think about nuclear weapons very much. They don’t know how many weapons each nation has or understand the policies governing their use. So when Trump administration officials claim the United States lags far behind China in modernizing its nuclear arsenal most Americans are not inclined to doubt. Without public inquiry or objection, those claims will form the basis of Congressional decisions to approve spending trillions to modernize the US nuclear arsenal so America can catch up with China.

In fact, China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950. None of its nuclear weapons are kept on high alert. Its nuclear-armed submarines never go on armed patrol. China is working diligently to improve the quality and increase the quantity of its nuclear forces, but at the present pace of those efforts, even if the United States does nothing, China’s nuclear forces will continue to lag far behind those of the United States for many decades.

Geng Shuang, the Chinese spokesperson who made the announcement, mentioned that China’s arsenal is “kept at the minimum level required by national security” and is “an order of magnitude” smaller than the US arsenal. But saying it once at a press conference in response to a question is a veritable whisper in the cacophony of information coming at US voters in this age of social media. Deciding to engage the United States in New START discussions would be surprising, make headlines, generate endless commentary and flood the United States with better information on China’s nuclear forces.

The Chinese government constantly complains about American attempts to hype “the China threat” to the United States. Yet presented with a golden opportunity to dispel at least some of the hype, all the ministry could muster was a few diffident lines at a press conference. All that Congress and the American public will hear is that “China said no.”

Chairman Xi Fails to Lead

That China said “no” to nuclear disarmament negotiations is most likely all the rest of the world will hear and remember as well.

China may be worried that accepting Pompeo’s offer could trap China in a difficult situation. That’s understandable, especially given the relatively strict verification requirements in the existing treaty. But Pompeo may have presented the current Chinese leader with a diplomatic no-lose scenario if he said yes. Had Chairman Xi agreed to engage the United States on the possibility of Chinese participation in New START it would have put the onus on President Trump to respond. Xi could have welcomed the opportunity to have the United States reduce its nuclear forces to a level where China could be an equal party to the treaty. If Trump demurred he would take the blame for China’s absence from negotiations. If Trump said yes the United States would have to reduce the size of its nuclear forces by an order of magnitude. Either way Xi wins. The only way he could lose was to say no, yet that’s what he did.

Geng Shuang told the press, “China stands consistently for the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” Claims like this from all the nuclear weapons states ring hollow to the vastly greater number of non-nuclear weapons states, which have been waiting for 49 years for China, the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia to honor their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Pompeo’s offer to engage the United States on deep nuclear reductions was a test, intended or not, of China’s commitment to the NPT. Xi failed that test.

The non-nuclear weapons states have good reason to doubt China’s sincerity. Like the United States, China signed but did not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). However inexcusable, the United States Senate rejected ratification shortly after the US signed the treaty in 1996 and a majority of senators remain opposed. China didn’t have that problem then, and it’s even less of a problem under Xi’s leadership. He could direct China’s National People’s Congress to ratify it tomorrow. He could also be more proactive in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD). China has a highly capable community of arms control experts, many with considerable scientific and technical expertise, who can support a more proactive Chinese stance on nuclear disarmament. Yet Xi seems happy to let things lie. His failure to respond positively to the opening Pompeo presented is a sign that China is content with a status quo where the world remains divided into nuclear haves and have-nots.

This was also a test of Xi’s common sense. Any imaginable negotiating scenario that resulted in a significant reduction of US nuclear forces is in China’s national security interest. A smaller US nuclear force makes it less likely the United States might try to launch a disarming nuclear first strike against China’s small nuclear force – the very scenario China’s nuclear modernization efforts are supposedly intended to address. Engaging in nuclear arms control negotiations with an adversary you believe may not be acting in earnest is a risk, but it’s one a China committed to “the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons” should be willing to take.

Sucker Punched

Finally, Geng Shuang said Pompeo’s offer was an “attempt to make an issue out of China on arms control.” What he meant was that the offer to negotiate wasn’t sincere. He may be right. There’s no evidence the United States approached China about New START either before or after Pompeo’s testimony, just like there’s no evidence the US spoke with China about joining the INF treaty. China’s assumption, and the assumption of most of my colleagues in the Chinese and US arms control communities, is that the Trump administration is setting China up to take the blame for the eventual collapse of the New START agreement, just like it did with the INF Treaty.

Arms control proponents in the United States are urging the Trump administration to go forward without including China because “to include limits on China would be complicated and take many years.” They also say that getting China to agree to New START’s strict verification measures “will require long periods of talks and confidence building measures.” But like the Foreign Ministry’s complaint about making China the issue,  these statements only encourage average Americans and their elective representatives to agree that China is a problem, that China isn’t ready or willing to disarm, so why should the United States. If Pompeo’s offer really was made in bad faith, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and the US arms control advocates urging Trump to forget about China, couldn’t have found better ways to help him get away with it.  

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.