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Trump’s Nuclear China Option

Hawks are telling the president to toughen up on Chinese nukes, but their plan might spur a new global atomic arms race.

Thomas Peter/Pool/Getty Images

On October 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping will preside over a major military parade in Beijing to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The parade will culminate with the unveiling of some pretty impressive weapons, including the Dong Feng 41 intercontinental-range ballistic missile—one of China’s longest-range missiles, capable of throwing multiple nuclear warheads across the entirety of the United States. Beijing may also show off new weapons based on technology still under development in the United States, like its Dong Feng 17 hypersonic missile.

The reaction to the parade by many observers in the United States will be predictable panic. For the Trump administration and its supporters on the Hill, Xi’s demonstration will serve as fodder for the argument that Beijing’s growing arsenal must be constrained by bringing China into future U.S.-Russia arms control talks. “Beijing can no longer credibly make the case that its forces are so small—and intended only for a secure, retaliatory deterrent—that they need not be included in arms-control negotiations,” two former Bush administration officials wrote in the National Review last spring, seeking to make this case.

Don’t buy it. While China’s ever-advancing capabilities are a cause for concern, proposals to “trilateralize” nuclear arms control are nothing more than a poison pill for existing bilateral arrangements, like the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Washington and Moscow. China won’t join such an arrangement, and pursuing this objective—as the Trump administration has indicated it might—will be a wild goose chase.

As the demise of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty earlier this year underscored, global arms control is in trouble. The United States and Russia are trying to squeeze through a fast-closing window to extend New START, the only major accord standing between mutual nuclear restraint and a potential renewed Cold War–style arms race. The treaty limits the countries’ deployed strategic nuclear weapons to a total of 1,550 and restricts their delivery methods (i.e., missiles and bombers) as well. The treaty succeeded in verifiably reducing the two countries’ arsenals; both sides announced they had met the reduction requirements in February 2018.

The treaty is set to expire in February 2021. A single five-year extension is possible. If Moscow and Washington fail to agree on an extension, however, the treaty’s limits on nuclear arms would expire. The Trump administration has indicated some interest in an extension, which should be a no-brainer, given the benefits to U.S. security. But this is where China can potentially complicate matters.

The idea of bringing China into New START, or something like it, has begun to creep into the president’s mind. In May, Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Cornyn of Texas—along with Liz Cheney, Wyoming’s sole congressional representative—introduced legislation that would, among other things, withhold funding for any extension of New START without China’s participation in the agreement. “America deserves better than a mere New START extension,” Cheney said in a statement touting the bill. “Any meaningful arms control treaty must reflect reality as it is” and address “the threat emanating from China,” she added.

In early May, Trump told reporters—falsely—that he had spoken to Chinese officials already about a trilateral arrangement and that “they very much would like to be a part of that deal.” Beijing swiftly denied that account just days later, saying they would “not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement.” (The denial followed earlier pushback by Chinese officials against suggestions that Beijing join a trilateral version of the now-dead Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the U.S.)

These days, “great power competition” is all the rage in Washington. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy declared that “great power competition” has returned, and China and Russia in particular have begun to “reassert their influence regionally and globally.” The 2018 National Defense Strategy calls China a “strategic competitor.”

While Russia and China are tossed into the mental bucket of “great power” competitors, their nuclear forces and strategies are nothing alike. China possess an order of magnitude fewer nuclear weapons than either the United States or Russia; compare inventories of roughly 300 warheads in China to arsenals of 6,000-plus in Russia and the U.S. How China manages its nuclear weapons in peacetime also doesn’t lend itself to an arrangement like New START. That treaty’s rules for counting “deployed” warheads concentrate on how many nuclear explosive packages are sitting, ready, atop launchable missiles. China, which has sought to make its 1964 commitment to nuclear “no first-use” credible in peacetime, keeps its warheads and missiles miles apart in peacetime, meaning its deployed warheads number zero, or pretty close to it.

That’s just one example of the impracticality of the trilateralization proposal. Legally speaking, there’s also no mechanism in New START to simply add a third party into the agreement. The choice Washington and Moscow face is to either extend the treaty for five years or to allow it to expire. If trilateral strategic nuclear arms control is of interest, the three countries will have to start from scratch. With China having ruled this out, the whole idea is nothing but a poison pill for New START’s extension. Proponents of a trilateral New START are seeking the resumption of a costly and dangerous open-ended arms race, which will benefit no one but the defense contractors lucky enough to find themselves involved in the production of new nuclear weapons.

All that said, China is entering the nuclear big leagues with the United States and will soon need to contend with its nuclear-armed older siblings. Part of the push for the U.S. to leave the now-dead INF treaty had to do with concerns about China: The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force comprises hundreds of missiles that the U.S. had been prohibited from possessing for 32 years under the INF accord. As U.S.-China competition in Asia intensifies, newly unfettered U.S. missile deployments may create the conditions for Beijing to reassess its interests.

But strategic arms control with China just isn’t something that’s likely to happen soon. Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, may be right that “China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade, but that would still position Beijing less than halfway to where the United States might be under an extended New START. Something like parity would need to exist for a U.S.-Russia-style arms-control process to begin with China. That would mean either Beijing pushing its nuclear arsenal up to where the United States is, or Washington continuing to disarm alongside Moscow until both reach China’s lower levels. Neither of these two possible futures are around the corner.

Keep all of this in perspective when Xi Jinping shows off some of Beijing’s new capabilities during the October 1 parade and U.S. hawks have a freakout. Even as “great power competition” talk takes hold and U.S.-China relations grow pricklier than ever, that relationship’s nuclear hazards pale next to where they might be if the Trump administration and the Russian government allow New START to expire in two years.