Nuclear arms control is at a crossroads — not because we are approaching the deadline on an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but because China’s nuclear expansion threatens to upend decades of relative nuclear stability between the United States and Russia.
The United States and Russia have been reducing their strategic nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War. The 1991 Start Treaty allowed each side 6,000 deployable strategic nuclear warheads; the 2010 treaty, known as New Start, lowered that limit to 1,550 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads.
But stability at these lower force levels will be challenged by China’s nuclear ambitions. China is clearly moving away from the small, limited nuclear force of its past. It is fielding modern land- and sea-based strategic systems and plans to introduce an air-launched ballistic missile delivered by heavy bombers in the near future, achieving its own strategic nuclear triad.
The Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that China will at least double the size of its nuclear arsenal over the next decade and is building the production capacity to expand it further. Given China’s secrecy about its nuclear forces, and its manifestly aggressive strategic intentions, this nuclear expansion may go even further, well beyond Beijing’s old “minimum deterrence” doctrine.
Still, it is in China’s interest to reverse its dangerous nuclear buildup, lest it set off a nuclear arms race involving the United States and Russia, and perhaps encourage other nuclear powers to increase their forces to keep pace.
Meanwhile, the United States is replacing its aging nuclear weapons systems. Our intention is to remain within the New Start limits of 700 strategic missiles and bombers and 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.
But as Chinese nuclear forces grow in size and sophistication, the United States will have no choice but to reassess and adjust its own nuclear force requirements. In the past, the United States classified China’s small nuclear arsenal as a subset of U.S. nuclear force requirements, which have been largely driven by the Soviet and then Russian threat.
But this will not remain the case if U.S. nuclear forces remain at historically low levels and China’s continue to expand with no discernible constraint. And the less we know about what China is doing and why, the more the United States must rely on worst case scenarios to size its nuclear forces accordingly.
China’s nuclear expansion and its refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue will affect stability on multiple levels. Increased U.S. nuclear force requirements to ensure credible deterrence against China would affect the United States-Russia strategic nuclear balance and threaten to undermine the prospects for further negotiated reductions. We should assume that Russia will also assess the implications of China’s expansion.
The American special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, made these points to his Russian counterpart during a meeting in June in Vienna. Russia should clearly see its own self-interest in helping to bring China into discussions on arms control.
These talks need not focus on making China part of an extended New Start agreement. But renewing the treaty for the United States and Russia without conditions for bringing China into a broader arms control process carries risks for future security, even if today it seems the easiest course to take. All the great powers must be invested in such a process.
We ask China to recognize its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to negotiate in good faith on limiting and reducing nuclear arms and, more generally, to take steps toward greater transparency. Transparency is important to foster greater trust and lessen the chance of miscalculation during a crisis. That first step is joining the United States and Russia at the table in Vienna.
Those of us charged with ensuring the defense of the United States call on Congress and our allies to help make the case to Russia and China that it is in the interests of all nations to broaden the current arms control framework to verifiably limit the nuclear weapons of all three major powers to secure a more stable and prosperous future.