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Nuclear Disarmament's Asian Pivot

Richard Weitz

In 2009, US President Barack Obama pledged to seek a world without nuclear weapons. But, while he delivered on his promise to negotiate a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia a year later, progress has since stalled. To break the deadlock, the current bilateral framework for negotiation, which has remained largely unchanged since the Cold War, must be transformed into a trilateral framework that includes China.

To be sure, such a move would significantly complicate negotiations. After all, while decades of bilateral dialogue have given the United States and Russia a good sense of each other’s strategic perspectives—including the issues on which they disagree—China’s perception of strategic stability is unfamiliar.

But trilateral dialogues, catalysed by skillful US diplomacy, could also serve as an opportunity to manage the countries’ strategic relations, which currently are characterised by contradictions and mistrust.

Russia seeks China’s support in opposing American missile-defence systems, and calls for the involvement of all nuclear states in future strategic arms-control talks, but then cites concerns about China’s military modernisation to justify its refusal to negotiate with Nato on tactical nuclear-weapon reduction.

China, which has never adopted legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear-delivery vehicles, rejects Russia’s call to join negotiations—a stance that the US supports until the Russian and US nuclear arsenals move closer in size to those of China.

At the same time, US officials deny that their country’s missile-defence programmes are directed against Russia or China, but refuse to offer a legally binding guarantee. And the US Department of Defence is developing a robust programme of long-range conventional strike weapons, which China and Russia cite to justify their efforts to strengthen their offensive nuclear forces.

Although multilateral co-operation on nuclear issues has been effective in some cases, such as in ratifying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has been inadequate in others, such as in easing tensions with Iran and North Korea. In fact, even when China, Russia, and the US share the same agenda, their differing diplomatic tactics often undermine their ability to achieve their objectives.

For example, the three countries’ policies are inadvertently contributing to proliferation pressures in Asia and Europe. US pledges to defend Japan against a nuclear attack from China or North Korea have played a decisive role in dissuading the Japanese from seeking their own nuclear weapons.

Given this, a Chinese nuclear surge—even one that did not lead to US-China parity—could undermine the credibility of American deterrence commitments, possibly motivating Japan to launch its own nuclear programme.

Similarly, some of Nato’s newer members, many of which are former Soviet-bloc states, are anxious about the prospect of Russian rearmament. As a result, they oppose efforts to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons in Europe, part of Nato’s “nuclear sharing” policy.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to initiating a trilateral dialogue is Chinese resistance to formal nuclear arms-control agreements, which is rooted in the memory of Cold War-era nonproliferation initiatives aimed partly at preventing China from developing its own nuclear deterrent. Since then, Chinese officials have insisted that they do not belong in US-Russian strategic-arms talks, because the two countries’ nuclear arsenals dwarf theirs.

But, as the US and Russia reduce their nuclear stockpiles, this excuse is becoming less valid, and China’s exclusion from negotiations is becoming an increasingly significant hindrance to disarmament.

Securing a binding commitment from China’s government to limit its nuclear development is crucial to reassuring the US and Russia that further strategic-weapons cuts will not undermine global or regional stability.

Several recent developments could help to minimise obstacles to trilateral co-operation. China’s new leadership is further removed from Maoist-era reflexive opposition to nuclear negotiations; Russian leaders’ confidence in their economic and military resurgence is waning; and both countries are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in nuclear talks with North Korea and Iran.

Meanwhile, faced with a large federal budget deficit, many American voters would welcome reduced spending on nuclear weapons.

The US should capitalise on this situation, leveraging Russian concerns and interests to induce China to join strategic arms-control efforts. China might be willing to make a unilateral, but enforceable, commitment not to augment its nuclear arsenal, if Russia and the US reduce theirs further.

Determining the circumstances that might induce such restraint—and the conditions that would be needed to sustain it—is crucial to reinvigorating nuclear disarmament efforts.

With Russia ostensibly on board, it is up to the US to initiate a transformation in the nuclear-negotiation framework—and that means convincing China to participate.

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