The Trump administration recently announced it intends to walk away from an important agreement that reduces the risk of nuclear war—the INF Treaty. US officials said concerns about China were an important factor in deciding to scrap a nuclear arms control pact intended to last in perpetuity. But there is no evidence the Trump administration consulted Chinese leaders about its plans to withdraw or the concerns that supposedly made it necessary.
The Soviet Union and the United States negotiated the bilateral agreement in the mid-1980s during an especially tense period when both sides were upgrading their immense nuclear arsenals. Wide-spread public protests in Europe and the United States helped push both governments to agree to eliminate at least one class of weapons: ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 miles.
Contemporary US critics of that agreement, including US National Security Advisor John Bolton, argue the United States must quit the treaty because China is not subject to the same restriction. That’s a dubious justification for tearing up the treaty, although persuading China to join has obvious value. Unfortunately, getting Chinese leaders to the negotiating table is a tough sell when, from their perspective, the entire US defense and foreign policy establishment is chomping at the bit to fight a new Cold War in Asia. But it’s only impossible if, like Mr. Bolton, you never really bother to try.
There is good reason to believe China is not opposed to arms control negotiations or unwilling to make significant concessions to arrive at an equitable agreement.
Even before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of the scientists and a few of the politicians who understood the long-term implications sought to impose international controls. They recognized these weapons were different. As horrible as the last war had been, a war fought with nuclear weapons would be far worse. No nation or coalition of nations could win such a war. The entire planet might become inhabitable. Human civilization and most of the living things on earth could perish, forever.
China came late to the nuclear table but the impact of the weapons on the scientists who developed them was similar. Hu Side, a former director of China’s nuclear weapons lab, wrote, “I’ve seen the mushroom clouds rise, felt the earth and mountain massifs shake and experienced the shock of the tremendous energy released by a nuclear explosion. It is precisely because of these experiences that I particularly understand why national decision-makers determined our country’s nuclear weapons were a defensive measure for strategic deterrence.” It may lack the poetry of Robert Oppenheimer‘s “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” but the sentiment is the same. Nuclear weapons are too powerful to be used to fight a war.
Until the late 1990s the nuclear arms race and efforts to stop it grew in tandem. Scientists rallied the public to restrain the self-destructive behavior of military and political leaders addicted to antiquated approaches to war and peace. But over the last thirty years the will to control the nuclear arms race has weakened while the addiction to antiquity has grown much stronger. This is especially true in US-China relations, where the most influential idea guiding US officials is “the Thucydides trap” and Chinese leaders propagandize “the Great Chinese Renaissance.”
The Beginning of the End
Ironically, international nuclear arms control began to die when China finally embraced it. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was the first international nuclear arms control accord China helped to negotiate. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party viewed nuclear arms control as vehicle for preserving the advantages of the Soviet Union and the United States. China lagged far behind in the nuclear arms race. By the time the negotiations reached their final stage China had conducted 47 nuclear tests and possessed several hundred nuclear warheads. The United States had conducted 1067 tests and possessed approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, China signed the treaty.
After the Clinton administration failed to convince the US Senate to ratify the CTBT, progress in international nuclear arms control ground to a halt. Negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of the materials used to make nuclear warheads were cut short. The United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD) became paralyzed; unable to reach a consensus on how to start negotiations on any arms control agreement.
The Bush administration made things exponentially worse when it unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The 1972 agreement was based on the common sense notion that both the United States and the Soviet Union would be safer if they limited missile defenses so that neither side would feel compelled to build new nuclear-armed missiles to overwhelm those defenses.
President Obama gave a nice speech in Prague and his administration managed to preserve the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiated in 1991. But in order to get this New START agreement ratified Obama promised the Senate he would allow them to spend more than a trillion dollars to upgrade the entire US nuclear arsenal. And he steadfastly refused to even discuss a suggestion Chinese arms controllers felt was important: beginning talks in the UNCD on a new international agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space.
China does not look at nuclear arms control in isolation. Some forms of conventional weapons technology, like those involved in missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons and long-range conventional precision strike weapons impact Chinese decisions about the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal.
The most important thing about all forms of international arms control negotiations is that they bring adversaries together to talk. Dialogue builds trust. Trust that the other side isn’t trying to trick you into agreeing to something to gain an advantage. Trust that the other side respects you and is seeking an equitable agreement that reduces anxiety and the risk of war.
China has a small number of nuclear-armed ground-based intermediate range missiles that would fall under the original INF Treaty limits. But it also has a much larger number of conventionally armed missiles in this class that seem to be the major concern of US advocates of withdrawing from the treaty. Figuring out how to negotiate an expanded INF Treaty that would require China to dismantle them would introduce a number of new and difficult issues to resolve, but it could also lead to some very productive conversations on how to build trust and preserve the peace in East Asia.
Sadly, I suspect US advocates of killing the INF Treaty have no intention to talk to China about joining it, but if the United States wanted to open negotiations China is likely to put forward a few conditions.
First and foremost, the discussion on intermediate-range missiles would have to take place in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. China must not be the only target of concern. Most if not all of the other nations that possess this class of weapon would have to be included. Chinese leaders prefer international rather than bilateral or multilateral forums for arms control negotiations. It’s not an unreasonable preference, and it predisposes Chinese negotiators to accept the general principle that restrictions should apply to everyone.
Unlocking the UNCD will be difficult because decisions are made by consensus—a norm for negotiations many cultures prefer. Consensus may require discussion of other arms control issues. Recent history suggests preserving peace in outer space may be one of them. Agreeing to begin discussions does not commit the United States to a particular outcome. It just creates an opportunity to talk. So broadening the agenda to satisfy all of the attending parties is not unreasonable either.
Finally, international arms control negotiations are not an apples-for-apples, oranges-for-oranges kind of thing. They’re an apples-for-my-pick-from-the entire-produce-aisle sort of thing. Different countries choose to rely on different weapons for all kinds of reasons, like geography. Because of its huge land mass and its concerns about the assemblage of conventional US forces on its periphery, China sees conventionally armed ground-based intermediate range missiles as an especially effective countermeasure. It’s invested decades of effort and substantial financial and technical resources in developing and deploying those missiles. Asking China to give them up is going to cost the United States something in return.
If the United States were serious about wanting China to join the INF Treaty, it would be talking with Chinese arms controllers about changes the United States might be willing to make in exchange for surrendering what Chinese military planners see as one of their most valuable military capabilities. There is no indication such a discussion has ever taken place. Until it does, China cannot be blamed for the US decision to kill the INF Treaty.