Home/Daniel Larison/New START and the China Diversion

New START and the China Diversion

New START has a little over eight months left to live, and the Trump administration remains fixated on its impossible and bizarre condition of bringing China into the treaty:

The Trump administration is increasingly set on trying to bring China into a key nuclear arms deal with Russia, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, amid fears by arms control experts that the effort is futile and the United States is running out of time to recommit to the Obama-era New START treaty.

The effort to bring China into an arms reduction treaty certainly is futile. Not only is China not going to participate in arms control negotiations with the U.S. anytime soon, but even if China were persuaded to participate the limits set by New START would allow China to increase its nuclear arsenal many times over while still remaining in compliance. It makes no sense to press another government to join an arms reduction treaty when that government currently possesses a fraction of the number of weapons that the treaty permits. There is no compelling reason to add China to an existing arms control agreement when their nuclear forces are much smaller than ours. One might as well insist that Pakistan or Israel joins the treaty. It is obvious that the administration has never been serious about extending New START. Talk of bringing in China has been a diversion from the real issue and a weak excuse to let the treaty expire. U.S.-China relations are extremely poor right now, so it’s not as if negotiations on this or any other issue would be productive in any case. As a general rule, arms control agreements are reached during periods when both governments are trying to cooperate with each other because they desire to reduce tensions. It is safe to say that there is no appetite for detente in either capital at the moment. Even if there were a good reason to pursue negotiations with China on arms control, this is probably the least propitious time imaginable.

Hawks continue to feign interest in a larger treaty because this is what they always do when they want to kill an existing agreement. As always, they claim that they just need to put more pressure on the other government and this will get them to cooperate:

Current and former Trump administration officials also reject the charge that they proposed trilateral arms negotiations simply to sink the deal, and insist Beijing could be pushed to the negotiating table with the right amount of pressure.

“The only thing that really makes this particularly worthwhile is bringing China to the table,” said Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former top National Security Council official on Europe and arms control under Trump. “China is the greatest threat to American security, our way of life, in the world. Russia is a third-world dictatorship, they are a mafia-run gas station with nuclear weapons,” he added.

China isn’t going to be “pushed” to negotiate a non-starter of an agreement in which it has nothing to gain. This should be elementary even for the thickest hard-liners. Whatever threat China may pose to the U.S., its nuclear arsenal is not the main problem that we need to be concerned about. When discussing arms control, the state that has the much larger nuclear arsenal is the priority. Focusing on China as the main threat while dismissing Russia as a “gas station” is idiotic. Nuclear weapons are one of the few remaining reasons to take Russia seriously as a great power, so we don’t get to blow that off when we are talking about a treaty that limits how many of those weapons they can possess and deploy.

The Trump administration can’t even compel Iran or North Korea to make concessions despite years of punitive measures, so why does anyone think that China would be more accommodating? Even if the treaty-killers weren’t acting in such obvious bad faith, there simply isn’t time for any of this. New START will be dead in February 2021, and there will be nothing else left to limit the size or deployment of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Floating pie-in-the-sky ideas about including China in an imaginary treaty that will never exist is nothing more than a delaying tactic so that the clock runs out on arms control.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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