Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Art Of The Trilateral Deal? U.S. Nuke Agreement With Russia, China Proving Difficult

A Russian Sarmat intercontinental missile is shown at an undisclosed location in March 2018.
A Russian Sarmat intercontinental missile is shown at an undisclosed location in March 2018.

While the United States and Russia were satisfied after their jump-started nuclear talks in Vienna on June 22, Washington was clearly disappointed that China rejected its special invitation.

"It is regrettable that China stood us up,” Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, said in Brussels on June 25. “They didn't just stand up the United States and Russia, they stood up the world when they refused to come to Vienna.”

The renewed talks with Russia and no-show China were part of a major push by the White House for an ambitious new accord to replace the New START treaty, a foundational piece of arms-control infrastructure, which expires in February 2021.

The meeting in Austria -- the first such talks in more than a year -- ended with both Russia and the United States expressing hope for a second round of talks, possibly in late July or early August.

Billingslea told reporters that he and his Russian counterpart, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, agreed to set up “multiple” technical working groups and that a second meeting would ultimately depend on their progress.

But while discussions are set to continue, serious questions remain about Washington’s approach to arms control.

Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control
Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control

In particular, its insistence on bringing China into broader negotiations with Russia to limit all three countries' nuclear-weapon stockpiles.

A three-way, nuclear arms-control agreement has been a goal for U.S. President Donald Trump for more than a year.

The White House, which has already withdrawn from other arms-control treaties because it accused Moscow of violations and felt the agreements benefited Russia more than the United States, has called for Beijing to join Moscow and Washington to find a replacement for New START, the 2010 treaty that limits the number of U.S.- and Russian-deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 each.

Beijing is unconstrained by modern-day arms control and U.S. officials have expressed concerns about China’s future arsenal, which could include unregulated nuclear, hypersonic, and cyber weapons.

“I'm talking about the advent of China, the rise of China and its destabilizing behavior, its pursuit of a significant crash (fast-paced) nuclear program,” Billingslea said on June 25 after talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Washington also wants Beijing involved because it says it is moving to increase the size and scope of its nuclear forces, with Billingslea telling reporters on June 24 that China is aiming to hide its rapidly growing arsenal “from the world through its secretive and nontransparent ways.”

But achieving a three-way deal is an undertaking that faces major obstacles.

For starters, U.S. officials have said they want a wider agreement covering nonstrategic weapons and even more stringent verification, something that would require months -- if not years -- to achieve, according to experts.

Similarly, U.S.-Russia relations remain at an all-time low, with the United States accusing Moscow of building up its forces and violating the now defunct Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

"I do find it interesting and regrettable that the Russian Federation for a decade or more deliberately cheated on the INF treaty, knowingly violating [it] by developing in secret the SSC-8 missile,” Billingslea said.

Moscow also says Washington violated the agreement -- a charge the United States denies.

This comes as the clock continues to tick toward the February 2021 expiration of New START.

A Chinese military truck carrying a stealth attack drone during a military parade in Beijing in October 2019.
A Chinese military truck carrying a stealth attack drone during a military parade in Beijing in October 2019.

The United States and Russia can exercise the option to extend the agreement by up to five years by mutual consent, but the Trump administration is considering whether it will do so and has said it harbors concerns that prolonging the agreement hurts its aim to bring China into the arms-control process.

This raises the possibility that one of the last building blocks of the arms-control framework governing the U.S.-Russia nuclear competition might collapse if progress isn’t made on Trump’s new nuclear agenda focused on China -- leaving no limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons for the first time in nearly half a century.

“This is a hugely ambitious idea and time is very short,” Steven Pifer, an arms-control expert at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told RFE/RL. “The New START deadline is approaching and there is a U.S. election coming with the potential for a new administration. That doesn’t lend to making any kind of deal.”

An Elusive Deal

Despite Washington’s growing calls, the Chinese government still refused to participate and Beijing declined to even send a representative to Austria for the talks.

This prompted a Twitter fight between U.S. and Chinese officials ahead of the nuclear talks that didn’t bode well for the White House’s desire to get a trilateral deal.

Shortly before talks began, Billingslea tweeted a picture of Chinese flags on an empty negotiating table, calling China a “no-show” and writing that Beijing was “hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things.”

That broadside drew a swift response from Fu Cong, the head of the Arms Control Department in China’s Foreign Ministry.

“What an odd scene! Displaying Chinese national flags on a negotiating table without China’s consent!” he tweeted in response. “Good luck on the extension of New START! Wonder how LOW you can go?”

Later, Russian Ambassador to Austria Dmitry Lyubinsky said the photo tweeted by Billingslea was staged and that no Chinese flags were in the room when the talks were held.

“The whole photo op with the flags was odd and it leaves questions about how genuine these talks really are,” Andrey Baklitskiy, a consultant at the PIR Center in Moscow, told RFE/RL. “Is the [U.S.] doing this for images and to look tough or are they pushing a real arms-control agenda?”

The U.S. desire to include China comes as Washington and Beijing are increasingly engaged in global competition with each other.

The Trump administration has said on multiple occasions that it believes Beijing is likely to double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the next decade as China has used its presence outside of Cold War-era arms-control treaties to assemble strategic weapons that Washington and Moscow have been prohibited from developing over the last three decades.

“We're going to continue to make clear that China cannot be allowed to completely derail and upend the strategic stability and security that was achieved over many, many decades of arms-control negotiations and agreements,” Billingsea said this week.

But while China remains a logical candidate for a trilateral arms-control deal, getting Beijing to join the negotiations is another issue.

Currently, Moscow and Washington possess a combined 12,170 nuclear warheads, 90 percent of the world’s total stockpile. Beijing’s arsenal sits at 320 warheads and China has little incentive to agree to put a cap on its stockpile while its two main rivals hold such a large advantage.

In the face of such obstacles, the U.S. attempt to get China join its upcoming arms-control discussions -- with the possible aim of replacing New START rather than committing to extend the treaty -- does not bode well for future arms-control talks.

After initial resistance, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow is ready to extend the agreement, but the Trump administration has not yet made a decision.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on the United States to respond to Russia's offer to extend New START without China, saying it "will create conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join multilateral nuclear-disarmament negotiations.”

“New START is the lowest hanging fruit in arms control and a litmus test for future talks,” said Baklitskiy. “If the U.S. can’t agree on that, then why is it at the table?”

Running Out The Clock?

Under Trump, Washington has abandoned other arms-control agreements, withdrawing from the INF and, this year, the Open Skies Treaty.

U.S. officials have also debated whether to carry out the first American nuclear tests in 28 years as a way to pressure Russia and China into agreeing on a trilateral arms-control deal, according to several reports.

With New START’s expiration looming and Washington’s negotiating approach being questioned, concerns are rising that the current deadlock will see the arms-control deal expire and potentially spark a 21st century arms race.

“Apparently, [China intends] to achieve some form of nuclear parity with both the United States and Russia,” said Billingslea. “And whether that parity is qualitative at the outset or perhaps quantitative -- this seems what they are determined, in fact, to do.”

Why Are Russian Spy Planes In The Sky Over Washington?
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:04:10 0:00

EXPLAINER: Why Are Russian Spy Planes In The Sky Over Washington?

U.S. allies are reportedly lobbying the Trump administration to agree to an extension while encouraging China to join broader arms-control negotiations.

This American approach has also led to some suspicions that Washington's insistence on a trilateral agreement is a negotiating tactic meant to draw concessions or a move meant to scuttle New START, while placing responsibility for the demise of the pact on China and Russia.

“The approach, in my view, is far more consistent in running out the clock on New START than trying to extend it,” Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, told RFE/RL.

Unconstrained by treaties, the United States could outspend and outmaneuver China and Russia and aim to pressure both countries into agreeing to a larger-scale deal more amenable to U.S. terms. However, experts are quick to warn that such a move could be a risky gambit for global arms control.

“It is in China’s interest to engage with the United States on these questions,” said Reif, “but they are not going to be coerced to the table.”

  • 16x9 Image

    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.