Asia
Issue Brief

Trilateral Arms Control: A Realistic Assessment of Chinese Participation

Current Chinese participation in trilateral arms control agreements seems unlikely. However, there are several steps the U.S. can take to improve the chances of future trilateral arrangements.
Part of the Chinese Foreign Policy Project
China
By David C. Logan

As U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate, trilateral arms control with Russia seems out of reach. David C. Logan, Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gives a realistic assessment of Chinese participation in formal trilateral agreements. In the short term, parallel bilateral talks with China and Russia—with an emphasis on risk reduction and crisis management—may be the most practical path forward to signing successful arms control arrangements between the three countries.

On this page
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Executive Summary

In April 2019, President Donald Trump instructed his administration to begin laying the groundwork for a possible trilateral nuclear arms control agreement with Russia and China. Although Chinese officials and experts were quick to reject the idea and the Trump administration eventually dropped the requirement, the concept of formal trilateral arms control involving China, Russia, and the United States continued to persist in policy discussions.1  Note: “China Says It Won’t Take Part in Trilateral Nuclear Arms Talks,” Reuters, May 6, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-putin-china/china-says-it-wont-take-part-in-trilateral-nuclear-arms-talks-idUSKCN1SC0MJ; and Fan Jishe, “Trilateral Negotiations on Arms Control? Not Time Yet,” China-US Focus, September 13, 2019, https://www.chinausfocus.com/peace-security/trilateral-negotiations-on-arms-control-not-time-yet.     This persistence has been reinforced by ongoing nuclear modernization programs in each of the three countries and renewed concerns surrounding strategic nuclear stability and possible arms racing dynamics.

The Joseph Biden administration has signaled that, rather than pursuing a trilateral framework like the former Trump administration, it will seek parallel bilateral talks with both China and Russia.2  Note: Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “U.S., Russia Extend New START for Five Years,” Arms Control Today 51, no. 2 (2021): 20-22.    Despite this change, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the United States will continue to pursue arms control with China. In addition, members of Congress have continued to insist that future arms control initiatives include China. In June 2021, Montana Senator Steve Daines introduced a nonbinding resolution stating that “any international arms control agreement entered into by the United States that limits the number of allowable nuclear-capable missiles must…include the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.” Other congressional measures have, variously, proposed requiring the secretary of state to submit concrete plans for trilateral arms control and establishing that it is the policy of the United States to pursue arms control negotiations with China.3  Note: See, for example, Section 701 of “S.687 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): STRATEGIC Act,” March 10, 2021, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/687/text; and “S.3843 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Future of Arms Control Act,” May 20, 2020, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3843.  

Arms control between the three countries could help address at least three risks. First, it can reduce the likelihood of nuclear use in a crisis or conflict involving the countries. Second, it can curb arms racing pressures. And third, it can remove a potential source of friction for the broader strategic relationships.

China’s Experience with Arms Control

Although China has not participated in agreements to limit its own nuclear weapons program, it has some relevant experience with major arms control initiatives. China is party to several significant multilateral arms control agreements, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).4  Note: China has signed but not ratified the CTBT. Beijing has regularly committed to abide by the CTBT and has provided support for the CTBT Organization. See, for example, “Remarkable Progress: China and the CTBT,” Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, January 2018, https://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/highlights/2018/remarkable-progress-china-and-the-ctbt/.     Although not a formal party to the regime, China has also committed to abide by the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

In addition to its participation in these multilateral initiatives, China has also signed a series of bilateral arms control agreements with Russia. In 1994, Moscow and Beijing signed a joint statement committing to mutual no-first-use and de-targeting of nuclear weapons. In 2009, China and Russia agreed to notification of ballistic missile and space rocket launches; in 2020, the two countries renewed the agreement for another 10 years.5  Note: Luke Champlin, “China, Russia Agree on Launch Notification,” Arms Control Today 39, no. 9 (2009); and “China, Russia Extend Missile Launch Notification Agreement to Maintain Global Strategic Stability,” Global Times, December 15, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1210062.shtml.    In the mid-1990s, the two countries also consented to several confidence-building measures to reduce militarization of their shared border.6  Note: Jing-dong Yuan, “Sino-Russian Confidence-Building Measures: A Preliminary Analysis,” Asian Perspective 22, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 71-108.  

Despite this experience, Beijing’s record on arms control has been inconsistent. First, China has not participated in or committed to several significant arms control initiatives, including the Australia Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. Second, China’s record of compliance with arms control agreements is somewhat spotty. Its ongoing expansion of its nuclear arsenal contravenes its disarmament commitments under Article VI of the NPT, and the recent revelations that China is constructing more than 200 new missile silos raise serious concerns about the future trajectory of China’s nuclear forces. Although China has committed to abide by the MTCR, its compliance record has been inconsistent.7  Note: Victor Zaborsky, “Does China Belong in the Missile Technology Control Regime?,” Arms Control Today 34, no. 8 (2004); and Leonard S. Spector, “The Missile Technology Control Regime and Shifting Proliferation Challenges,” Arms Control Today 48, no. 3 (2018): 18-19.    Recently, the U.S. Department of State has raised concerns about Chinese non-compliance regarding its commitment not to test nuclear weapons, though details on the allegations are sparse. Third, China has little experience with either nuclear risk reduction or nuclear crises. During the Cold War, Soviet-American cooperative measures were driven, in part, by the harrowing experiences of the Cuban Missile Crisis. By contrast, China’s last situation in which nuclear weapons featured heavily was the 1969 border crisis with the Soviet Union, and Chinese strategists appear to have overly sanguine views about the ability to control escalation.8  Note: Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security 44, no. 2 (2019): 61-109.    Fourth, and most significantly from the perspective of recent proposals for trilateral arms control, China has never been party to an agreement limiting its development, deployment, or use of nuclear weapons systems, nor has it committed to inspections of its nuclear weapons facilities.

Obstacles to Formal Restrictions on Force Structure

There are several obstacles to formal quantitative restrictions. First, there are significant asymmetries between the nuclear forces of China, Russia, and the United States. While the United States and Russia possess rough parity in the size and sophistication of their strategic nuclear forces, they both enjoy significant superiority over China. Though the United States and China deploy few if any tactical nuclear weapons, Russia is believed to have several hundred to a few thousand tactical nuclear weapons.9  Note: Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Russian Nuclear Weapons, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 77, no. 2 (2021): 100-101; and See Igor Sutyagin, Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-strategic Nuclear Forces, Royal United Services Institute, Occasional Paper, November 2012, 3.    China enjoys significant superiority in regional nuclear forces over the United States. The United States nuclear arsenal must support extended deterrence commitments, while China’s and Russia’s arsenals do not. Although U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities are limited, they still surpass those of either China or Russia.

Second, the growing interaction between conventional and nuclear systems complicates the strategic dynamics of the nuclear domain and may render previous forms of nuclear arms control obsolete.10  Note: Alexey Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, Petr Topychkanov, Tong Zhao and Li Bin, Entanglement: Chinese and Russian Perspectives on Non-nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks, ed. James M. Acton (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017); and David C. Logan, “Are They Reading Schelling in Beijing? The Dimensions, Drivers, and Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement in China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 2020.   Relatedly, the growing entanglement of conventional and nuclear systems, including through the deployment of dual-use weapons and potentially growing overlap in conventional and nuclear command and control infrastructure, increases the risks of nuclear escalation in an otherwise conventional crisis or conflict.11  Note: Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War with the United States,” International Security 41, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 50-92.    In addition, some subject matter experts contend the development of advanced precision-guided conventional weapons introduces the possibility of states executing conventional counterforce strikes.12  Note: Ian Bowers and Henrik Stålhane Hiim, “Conventional Counterforce Dilemmas: South Korea’s Deterrence Strategy and Stability on the Korean Peninsula,” International Security 45, no. 3 (2021): 7-39.  

Third, as discussed earlier, China has relatively less experience with and confidence in arms control, which will likely make the country resistant to accepting the kinds of intrusive inspection regimes necessary to verify quantitative restrictions.13  Note: Tong Zhao, “Opportunities for Nuclear Arms Control Engagement with China,” Arms Control Today 50, no. 1 (January/February 2020): 9-12.    China has signed a handful of arms control measures with Russia, but these agreements have been largely confidence-building measures without inspection protocols.14  Note: Jing-dong Yuan, “Sino-Russian Confidence-Building Measures: A Preliminary Analysis,” Asian Perspective 22, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 71-108.    Most significantly, Chinese experts are increasingly skeptical of the value of arms control generally, viewing it as “an arena for zero-sum military and political struggle.”15  Note: Henrik Stålhane Hiim and Magnus Langset Trøan, “Hardening Chinese Realpolitik in the 21st Century: The Evolution of Beijing’s Thinking about Arms Control,” Journal of Contemporary China (2021), https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2021.1926095.  

Fourth, all three parties have different preferences about which nuclear-armed states should be included in such a deal. Russia has indicated it would not require Chinese participation in follow-on agreements and has insisted that any agreement including China should also incorporate France and the United Kingdom.16  Note: “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference on, ‘Foreign Policy Priorities of the Russian Federation in Arms Control and Nonproliferation in the Context of Changes in the Global Security Architecture’ Moscow, November 8, 2019,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, November 8, 2019, https://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/organizacia-po-zapreseniu-himiceskogo-oruzia/-/asset_publisher/km9HkaXMTium/content/id/3891674; and “Russia’s Priority Is to Involve UK, France in Future Nuclear Arms Control Talks — Diplomat,” TASS, June 26, 2020, https://tass.com/politics/1172109.    Similarly, Chinese officials have historically emphasized that their country’s nuclear forces are more comparable to those of France and the United Kingdom and that future negotiations might include all five of the nuclear-armed states recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.17  Note: “Department of Arms Control and Disarmament Holds Briefing for International Arms Control and Disarmament Issues,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 8, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1795979.shtml; and “Director-General FU Cong’s Interview with Kommersant,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, October 16, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/t1824545.shtml.     However, there appears to be little appetite for nuclear arms control in either Paris or London; in fact, the United Kingdom announced in March that it had increased the self-imposed cap on its overall nuclear stockpile from 180 to 260 warheads. Moreover, broadening the number of parties would further complicate negotiations and make a successful agreement even less likely.

Although potentially useful in curbing arms racing dynamics and cooling overall threat perceptions, formally negotiated reductions are unlikely to address today’s most pressing nuclear risks between the three countries.

Finally, and most significantly, although potentially useful in curbing arms racing dynamics and cooling overall threat perceptions, formally negotiated reductions are unlikely to address today’s most pressing nuclear risks between the three countries. The nuclear dangers vary across each of the bilateral relationships.18  Note: Rebecca Lissner, “The Future of Strategic Arms Control,” Council on Foreign Relations, Discussion Paper Series on Managing Global Disorder no. 4 (April 4, 2021): 7-10.    For instance, while American concerns about Russia’s nuclear forces focus primarily on Russia’s willingness to resort to nuclear use and its development of exotic nuclear systems, U.S. nuclear anxieties about China center on its entanglement of conventional and nuclear forces, the durability of its no-first-use policy, or the potential shift toward a launch-on-warning posture.19  Note: On U.S. nuclear concerns about Russia, see Charles E. Ziegler, “A Crisis of Diverging Perspectives: U.S.-Russian Relations and the Security Dilemma,” Texas National Security Review 4, no. 1 (Winter 2020/2021): 21-25; and Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, “Russian Nuclear Strategy and Conventional Inferiority,” Journal of Strategic Studies 44, no. 1 (2021): 6-8. On U.S. nuclear concerns about China, see Gerald C. Brown, “Understanding the Risks and Realities of China’s Nuclear Forces,” Arms Control Today 51, no. 5 (June 2021): 6-13; and Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear?,” 50-92.    Similarly, while China’s degree of nuclear inferiority creates fears of a possible U.S. disarming strike, Russia’s rough parity with the United States in strategic nuclear systems largely mutes such concerns.20  Note: For recent models of the survivability of China’s nuclear arsenal to a strike by the United States, see Wu Riqiang, “Living with Uncertainty: Modeling China’s Nuclear Survivability,” International Security 44, no. 4 (Spring 2020): 84-118.    This asymmetry means that measures to address risks in one edge of the China-Russia-U.S. triangle may not effectively address risks in another.

Focus Instead on Crisis Management and Risk Reduction

In the short term, rather than pursuing traditional arms control in the form of formal trilateral quantitative restrictions with Russia and China, the United States should instead focus on reducing the risks of nuclear escalation in a crisis or conflict and should do so in parallel bilateral settings. Washington can simultaneously continue to push for bilateral reductions with Moscow and, separately, lay the groundwork for comparable measures with Beijing in the future. There are several ways in which a long-term formal agreement might accommodate the challenges discussed earlier. For instance, expert Zhao Tong has proposed a comprehensive treaty limiting the combined number of all delivery systems with ranges greater to or equal to those covered by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; although Russia and the United States have superiority in nuclear delivery systems, China possesses superiority in conventional delivery systems, and the three countries enjoy relative parity across total systems. Others have highlighted the possibility of negotiating indirect limits through a mutual fissile material cutoff declaration, which might be more politically palatable because it might not require as intensive inspection or monitoring activities and would not directly limit deployed military capabilities.21  Note: James M. Acton, Thomas D. MacDonald, and Pranay Vaddi, Revamping Nuclear Arms Control: Five Near-Term Proposals (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2020), 23-27.  

However, these more intensive forms of cooperation will not be achieved anytime soon. Rather, in the near term, the United States can focus on attaining narrower, less intensive forms of cooperation. This can consist of dialogues, confidence-building measures, and crisis-management mechanisms.

First, the United States should continue to pursue dialogue with China on nuclear weapons issues. These dialogues can focus on increased transparency and discussion about doctrine, capabilities, threat perceptions, signaling, plans, and force-modernization drivers. Chinese and American experts appear to have different views of nuclear escalation dynamics which could be dangerous in a crisis or conflict.22  Note: Cunningham and Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” 61-109.    Many aspects of Beijing’s nuclear forces remain unclear, including the drivers and goals of its ongoing modernization efforts, the conditions under which China might use nuclear weapons, how Beijing might define “nuclear use,” and the People’s Liberation Army’s approach to nuclear signaling.23  Note: Christopher P. Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Doctrine and Deterrence Concept,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, eds. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2021), 45-62.    Dialogues can provide an opportunity to resolve some of these potential misunderstandings. The United States could also use these talks to clarify U.S. policy. They can also present fora by which to push for Chinese actions that could improve strategic stability, including maintaining the practice of not mating or alerting forces in peacetime, limiting and reducing conventional-nuclear entanglement, pre-notification of significant exercises, not integrating artificial intelligence capabilities into nuclear command and control, and maintaining strong centralized control and not pre-delegating nuclear launch authority. A series of Track-1.5 dialogues focused on some of these issues was suspended two years ago and has yet to resume. Relaunching this dialogue, perhaps shortly after the Biden administration completes its Nuclear Posture Review, would be a potentially valuable step.

Second, the United States can pursue confidence-building measures in the nuclear domain, which can increase predictability, reciprocity, and trust. This could include visits to missile defense sites, notification of ballistic missile launches, joint technical assessments of missile defense capabilities, or Chinese participation in (mock) New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) inspections.24  Note: For some examples, see Elbridge A. Colby and Abraham M. Denmark, Nuclear Weapons and U.S.-China Relations: A Way Forward (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2013), 24-25. Some of these efforts might require changes to U.S. law, though current and former U.S. officials suggest these challenges should not be insurmountable.    These measures can improve understanding of the other side’s capabilities and intentions. They can also create valuable personal and organizational relationships between countries and increase confidence in their own capacity to participate in arms control agreements and in the value of arms control generally.

Third, the United States can pursue crisis management mechanisms. These mechanisms can help reduce the frequency and intensity of crises and conflicts and may consist of diplomatic channels, leadership hotlines, and military protocols. These tools can save time and share information during pressing crises, helping to mitigate unintentional escalation pressures. For instance, in 2015, Beijing and Washington agreed to establish a hotline dedicated to space security issues. In 2017, the countries established a military hotline for direct communication at the three-star level.

In pursuing these measures, American and Chinese officials will have to compartmentalize these efforts at reducing nuclear risks from other tensions in the relationship.25  Note: Fiona S. Cunningham, “Cooperation under Asymmetry? The Future of US-China Nuclear Relations,” The Washington Quarterly 44, no. 2 (2021): 172.    In the past, China has canceled similar dialogues to protest U.S. policy in other domains, and American officials have complained of China’s tendency to hold cooperative efforts hostage to further disputes.26  Note: Shannon Tiezzi, “Another US-China Dialogue Bites the Dust,” The Diplomat, October 2, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/10/another-us-china-dialogue-bites-the-dust/. Similar behavior continues today. For instance, in May 2021, China suspended its strategic economic dialogue with Australia over complaints that “some Australian Commonwealth Government officials launched a series of measures to disrupt the normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Australia out of Cold War mindset and ideological discrimination.” See Gabriel Crossley and Kirsty Needham, “China Suspends Economic Dialogue with Australia As Relations Curdle,” Reuters, May 5, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china-suspend-economic-dialogue-mechanism-with-australia-2021-05-06/.     For example, the Biden administration recently announced it would seek to establish an emergency hotline between the senior political leaders of the two countries. However, the same week, Beijing refused a meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during a recent tour of Asia before apparently reversing course and offering a meeting at the end of July.27  Note: Demetri Sevastopulo, “China snubs senior US official in worsening diplomatic stand-off,” Financial Times, July 15, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/2d034271-fcd7-4977-9d50-13bc048e6084; and Simon Lewis and David Brunnstrom, “Senior U.S. diplomat Sherman to visit China – State Department,” Reuters, July 21, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/senior-us-diplomat-sherman-visit-china-state-department-2021-07-21/.     

The United States should also design these measures with an eye to their strategic implications. Poorly designed or implemented confidence-building measures or crisis management mechanisms, for instance, could actually increase dangers by potentially providing incentives for risk-taking. Inadequately executed cooperative efforts could actually undermine confidence, potentially leaving the parties even more distrustful than if there had been no agreement in the first place. Finally, American and Chinese officials will have to ensure that, in negotiating crisis management and confidence-building measures, they strive to get “beyond yes” and ensure the sustained and successful implementation of those measures over the long term. For example, one U.S. official suggested that China has not implemented the three-star military hotline, saying, “It’s known to have, the couple of times we’ve used it, just rung in an empty room for hours upon hours.” This means providing the necessary organizational support and assuring the required high-level political oversight. American officials have suggested that they may try to arrange a meeting between Biden and his counterpart President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Rome in October. The agenda for that meeting should include nuclear weapons and strategic stability issues.

Laying the Groundwork for Future Agreements

Achieving even these less intensive forms of cooperation will be difficult. In the past, China has largely declined American proposals for talks on nuclear issues. It has been reluctant to upgrade Track-1.5 dialogues on nuclear issues to the official level.28  Note: David Santoro and Robert Gromoll, “On the Value of Nuclear Dialogue with China,” Issues & Insights 20, no. 1 (2020): 7-9.    In 2018, the United States proposed establishing with China a Strategic Capabilities Working Group “focused on risk reduction and transparency in the nuclear and strategic capabilities arena.” Beijing did not accept the proposal.

Similarly, U.S. officials have offered to provide technical briefings on American regional missile defense capabilities, but China has so far rebuffed those offers, leading some American experts to conclude that Chinese concerns about U.S. missile defense systems are disingenuous.29  Note: Lesley Wroughton, “U.S. Hopes China Will Agree to Talk about South Korea Missile Defense,” Reuters, March 29, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-nuclear-missiledefense-china/u-s-hopes-china-will-agree-to-talk-about-south-korea-missile-defense-idUSKCN0WV2E0; and Abraham Denmark, “China’s Fear of U.S. Missile Defense Is Disingenuous,” Foreign Policy, March 20, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/20/chinas-fear-of-u-s-missile-defense-is-disingenuous-north-korea-trump-united-states-tillerson-thaad/.    Chinese officials have stated that their concerns about ballistic missile defense (BMD) go beyond technical issues. For instance, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs implied that Beijing’s protests against THAAD deployments in South Korea were not purely technical but also political, saying, “Instead of being a pure[ly] technical issue, the US possible deployment of THAAD system in the ROK is a strategic issue that bears on the peace and stability of Northeast Asia.” Similarly, a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense, when asked about U.S. pledges that its regional BMD systems could not target China, claimed that “As to the technical explanation that has been given by the U.S. and the ROK, those who are fully aware of the matter can see through those excuses very easily.”

Although the near-term prospects are dim for a formal trilateral agreement limiting deployed nuclear capabilities, there are meaningful and feasible areas of potential arms control cooperation between China, Russia, and the United States.

However, although the near-term prospects are dim for a formal trilateral agreement limiting deployed nuclear capabilities, there are meaningful and feasible areas of potential arms control cooperation between China, Russia, and the United States. Though Russia has not demanded China’s participation, it has not explicitly opposed it. Despite China’s refusal to negotiate a formal trilateral agreement, Chinese officials have at least stated a willingness to engage in arms control initiatives generally, though often with preconditions such as the substantial reduction in American and Russian nuclear arsenals. They have further expressed a preference for less intensive initiatives crafted in multilateral forums.

There are several steps the United States can take now to improve the prospects of achieving both near-term dialogues, confidence-building measures, and crisis-management mechanisms, as well as a potential future trilateral agreement limiting nuclear deployments. First, the United States can consider how its own strategic capabilities policies might influence Chinese and Russian attitudes toward arms control. There are many drivers of China’s and Russia’s approaches to nuclear weapons, including domestic political and organizational ones, which have little to do with U.S. policy.30  Note: On the Chinese side, see Christopher P. Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Forces,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 10, 2021, 4-6, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2021-06/Christopher_Twomey_Testimony.pdf; and David C. Logan, “China’s Nuclear Forces,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 10, 2021, 7-10, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2021-06/David_Logan_Testimony.pdf.

However, there is evidence that U.S. policy may play a role. For instance, both China and Russia have identified U.S. BMD developments as primary sources of concern. The United States has, in recent years, indicated its desire to expand its BMD capabilities in the future, likely exacerbating those concerns. In 2017, the National Defense Authorization Act removed the word “limited” from descriptions of U.S. BMD plans.31  Note: Kingston Reif, “Trump Seeks Missile Defense Buildup,” Arms Control Today 49, no. 2 (March 2019): 30-32.    Similarly, the 2019 Missile Defense Review stated that “the United States will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities needed to protect the homeland against rogue missile threats.” In addition to potentially expanding its BMD plans, the United States has deployed a new low-yield warhead on nuclear submarines. Chinese analysts have pointed to this as evidence of the United States lowering the threshold for nuclear use in order to counteract China’s conventional superiority in the region.32  Note: Luo Xi [罗曦], “Adjustments in the U.S. Strategic Deterrence System and Sino-U.S. Strategic Stability [美国战略威慑体系的调整与中美战略稳定性],” Journal of International Relations [国际关系研究], no. 6 (2017): 32-49.    The United States should consider areas of its strategic security policies, such as ballistic missile defense, where revising it as part of arms control efforts could potentially help curb Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization.

Second, the United States can help build capacity for negotiating and implementing arms control agreements. On the U.S. side, this could mean removing obstacles to cooperation on sensitive issues. The 2000 National Defense Authorization Act states that “The Secretary of Defense may not authorize any military-to-military exchange or contact…if that exchange or contact would create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure,” including in the areas of nuclear operations.33  Note: For more discussion, see David C. Logan, China’s Nuclear Forces,” 15-16.    These kinds of restrictions could present obstacles to U.S.-China cooperation in the nuclear domain. On the Chinese side, this means building capacity for and confidence in cooperative arms control efforts. Given China’s skepticism of arms control, the United States might benefit by enlisting Russia to explain the history and value of cooperative arms control. For example, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed at their June summit to resume a bilateral dialogue focused on issues of strategic stability. Such initiatives could serve as models for potentially addressing Chinese skepticism.34  Note: Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “U.S., Russia Agree to Strategic Stability Dialogue,” Arms Control Today 51, no. 6 (July/August 2021): 22-23.    Progress in these areas, however limited, can help lay the political and organizational foundations for deeper forms of cooperation in the future.

Conclusion

Trilateral arms control is not only unlikely due to a host of strategic, organizational, and political challenges; it is unlikely to tackle the most pressing nuclear risks confronting the three states. China is unlikely to consent to any trilateral agreement. Rather, a more fruitful approach would be to continue separate bilateral efforts and prioritize risk reduction and crisis management, particularly with Beijing.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to trilateral arms control and arms control between the United States and China is the continued deterioration in U.S.-China relations.35  Note: Hal Brands and Zack Cooper, “U.S.-Chinese Rivalry Is a Battle Over Values: Great-Power Competition Can’t Be Won on Interests Alone,” Foreign Affairs, March 16, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-03-16/us-china-rivalry-battle-over-values; and Wang Jisi, “The Plot Against China? How Beijing Sees the New Washington Consensus,” Foreign Affairs 100, no. 4 (July/August 2021).    Heightened competition and the increasing “securitization” of the bilateral relationship will raise skepticism of the value and feasibility of cooperative measures. However, this intensified competition, and its attendant risks, also raise the need for erecting guardrails to manage that competition. As China’s military power grows, it may be necessary to expand these efforts beyond the nuclear domain. The work will be slow-going and challenging. But the stakes are too high not to try.

David C. Logan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a Stanton Nuclear Security Pre-Doctoral Fellow in the Security Studies Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices