In the latest round of talks between the U.S. and Russia on whether or not to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), China was invited, but Beijing’s RSVP was “No Show.” There is no question that the U.S. and Russia have had their differences lately over treaties and agreements. The U.S. pull-out of the Treaty on Open Skies is the latest.
However, the existing START agreement has been in effect since February of 2011 and will expire in February 2021 if not extended. The treaty limits the strategic, nuclear-capable weapon systems like warheads, intercontinental-range strategic missiles, long-range bombers, and ground-based missile launchers as well as submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The U.S. and Russia must agree to extend the START agreement or let the time limit run out. The rapidly approaching date (in terms of the glacial pace of diplomatic time) has prompted the urgency of the negotiations being held in Vienna, Austria, this week.
Leading the U.S. negotiating team is Marshall Billingslea, who is no newcomer to the arena of arms control and negotiating face-offs with the Russians. Billingslea has held positions in the Department of Defense as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiation Policy and served in NATO as the Assistant Secretary-General for Defense Investment. He was recently confirmed as President Trump’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing in the Treasury Department before being selected for his current responsibilities.
Leading the U.S. Delegation as the Trump Administration’s Special Envoy for Arms Control, Billingslea has demonstrated that he is a no-nonsense advocate for America’s interests on the highly charged nuclear arms control stage.
The U.S. delegation and the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly held that China must be a participant in these START negotiations. From Mumbai, India, Vishal Tiwari reports that Morgan Ortagus, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said, “Pompeo told Sergey Lavrov that future arms control talks must be based on President Trump’s vision of a trilateral arms control agreement that includes both Russia and China.” Tiwari points out that, “Media reports suggest that U.S. administration officials insist on bringing China into the new arms control pact because of the growing threat posed by its nuclear arsenal, that the country is currently modernizing.” India, also a nuclear-capable nation with approximately 140 nuclear weapons, would have an interest in the ongoing arms control talks.
Mr. Billingslea did not find the absence of China at the negotiating table amusing, and as The Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz quotes from a Billingslea tweet, “China is a no-show. Beijing is still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up and so many other things. We will proceed with #Russia, notwithstanding.” Gertz describes a little geopolitical jab at the Chinese when the U.S. negotiating team “released a photograph of the meeting room showing empty seats with Chinese flags” where Beijing’s delegation would have been seated. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s position was predictable. According to the Gertz article, Zhao “denounced the U.S. effort to press Beijing into arms talks. China has long resisted being included in the New START talks, saying its nuclear warhead arsenal is a small fraction of those of the U.S. and Russian.”
As reported in World Population Review’s “Nuclear Weapons by Country 2020,” Russia has 4,490 active weapons, the U.S. has 3,800, and China is in fourth place with 290 behind France with 300. One can argue that China does not possess the extensive nuclear arsenal that the U.S. and Russia have, but in the nuclear weapons fraternity, 290 is not nothing. Additionally, according to the U.S. delegation in Vienna, the PRC is engaged in a “crash nuclear build-up.” That growing nuclear capability includes significant quantities of new missiles, with multiple warheads as well as submarines and atomic bombs. China also has a robust hypersonic glide vehicle program they claim can carry nuclear warheads through missile defenses.
Beijing’s growing nuclear capability is why Billingslea explained that the U.S. desires to expand the arms talks to include the PRC’s nuclear arsenal and to include the vast array of nuclear weapons China has, not just the strategic systems. Gertz further explains in his article that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the START talks to be a simple extension of the current agreement for five additional years. That would allow the U.S. time to persuade Beijing to join the negotiations. However, even five years may not be enough time to cajole Beijing to join the talks.
The recent tensions between Washington and Beijing make it even more doubtful that any meaningful talks that include China will happen anytime soon. There is nothing to indicate that by the time of the next New START talks tentatively scheduled for the end of July or the first of August, the Chinese Communist Party will have changed their minds and participate.
So, what’s the most likely scenario when the delegates from the U.S. and Russia gather around the conference table in Vienna to resume their nuclear arms control discussions? The Chinese flag will be placed in front of empty chairs, and the water glasses and little nut cups will go untouched.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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