Michael KreponTime to Shift from the Post-Kabul Blues to the China Arms Control Challenge

Prophesy of the week:

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter. Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.” – Isaiah, 5:12-21.

At times like these, Biblical prophecy is called for. Instead, we get op-eds. The worst of the lot are from those who were once bullish about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They criticize President Biden for the manner of his leaving Afghanistan while calling for continued sacrifice by the one per cent who volunteered to fight in wars whose promise of lasting accomplishment was miniscule.

Withering critiques come from those who assume that continuation of a modest U.S. military footprint could hold off a tide that had already unalterably turned. Others who acknowledge the need to leave argue that Biden did so badly. They are right. This assumes, however, that there was a way to leave that wasn’t tragic and humiliating.

President Biden is right to call upon national security strategists and the punditocracy to think about the future as well as how to avoid repeating past mistakes. The primary national security challenge facing my country now is, in my opinion, domestic dysfunction. And then there’s China and Russia. Iran and North Korea will also continue to demand attention, while friends and allies demand reassurance.

We have heavy-duty thinking to do about how to reduce nuclear danger in a period of heightened competition. The geometry of nuclear rivalry has never been more complicated, with four pairings and the possibility of more. Our old arms control playbooks weren’t written for the tasks that lie ahead.

To begin with, we’ve never tried to do triangular nuclear arms control before.

The last multilateral negotiations to control “strategic” arms didn’t end well.  Naval arms racing was of great concern in the 1920s and 1930s. Diplomatic efforts to control “capital ships” by means of tiered hierarchies were unsustainable. New military technologies – especially the aircraft carrier and the submarine – made a hash of agreed ratios. The 1922 and 1930 naval treaties had many loopholes, easily exploited. Hedging strategies accelerated the unraveling of agreed restraints. And most important of all, naval limitations couldn’t possibly survive the geopolitical ambitions of Germany and Japan.

Bilateral U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms limitation was hard. Triangular nuclear arms control is way harder. Hierarchy will again bedevil negotiations, as will decisions regarding what is to be included and excluded. There’s also the problem that two of the three presumed parties are unhappy with the status quo and inclined to collaborate against the third. Unhappiness with the status quo isn’t a deal breaker. Dangerous national ambition is.  

Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda, who will run the numbers for us, suggest that China now seeks to be a “medium” nuclear power, rather than to remain attached to minimal nuclear deterrence. They may be right, but this assumes that Beijing is acting primarily out of a need for retaliatory capabilities as Washington modernizes its offensive and defensive capabilities.

This is no doubt true, but other factors might be involved. It’s also possible that Beijing has belatedly been infected by the thinking of western nuclear deterrence strategists who place oversized importance on the symbolic, geopolitical, as well as military utility of nuclear weapons.

If Beijing is concerned with status, if it refuses second-class status in the global and nuclear order, and if it anticipates that it can’t “just say no” indefinitely to inclusion in nuclear negotiations, then Beijing’s intercontinental ballistic missile deployments are likely to be on a par with those of the United States and Russia.

China’s Navy is also constructing new missile-carrying subs, but the U.S. Navy is likely to retain a meaningful qualitative edge in this domain. China’s bomber force, like that of Russia, will likely remain a pale shadow to that of the United States. All in all, Beijing’s program strikes me as that of a country seeking leverage in negotiations to come and its rightful place in the global and nuclear order.

The Trump administration put Beijing on notice that it will be called upon to join in arms control negotiations. Its framework for doing so — John Bolton’s proposal to count every last warhead – was easily dodged. This proposed counting exercise was both a digression and a ruse. Bolton made no secret of his opposition to deeper cuts and his preference to be rid of New START’s limitations. Placing the focus on China was one way of doing so.

Then Beijing put the focus on itself as the scope and growth of its strategic modernization programs became apparent. The more Beijing ramps up its nuclear arsenal, the more it can expect calls for inclusion in nuclear negotiations.

Arms controllers are in a bind here. By pushing for trilateral controls, we’ll only encourage Beijing to modernize more quickly, so as not to be disadvantaged in negotiations, just as the Kremlin did during the run-up to the strategic arms limitation talks in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. And we would be adding our voices to those opposed to arms control who call for China’s inclusion as a way to block a successful result.

Even so, I believe we are obliged to call on Beijing to place limits on its nuclear forces. Not to do so as China ramps up places us in an untenable position. Washington and Moscow are modernizing but not increasing force structure. Beijing is modernizing and adding force structure at a significant rate.

As Beijing expands its force structure, Washington and Moscow will feel increasingly uncomfortable with their decision to extend New START limitations for five years. If trilateral controls are not being actively pursued or in place by 2026 when New START’s extension ends, this could mean the end of bilateral strategic arms control.

If this is where we are headed, then our choice becomes clear: either to pursue trilateral nuclear arms control or to preside over the demise of New START.  Our challenge, then, is to craft a plan for trilateral negotiations that serves U.S. national security interests as well as the interests of friends and allies. Our plan needs to appeal to common sense and to be verifiable.  

I wouldn’t suggest seeking to count every last warhead as this would be a lengthy and hard-to-verify diversion from the pressing problems at hand. Nor would I make a priority of trying to include tactical nuclear warheads in negotiations. This, too, would be a digression, as tac nukes have minimal military utility. By seeking their immediate inclusion, we suggest that they have more value than is the case, sending the wrong message to the Kremlin. If the Russian national security establishment wishes to invest heavily in nuclear weapons that pose a threat to the Russian Army, that’s their problem. 

So, what besides strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile-carrying subs, and long-range bombers) do we want to include in trilateral negotiations? My door stop/magnum opusWinning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, lays out the pros and cons of inclusion and exclusion. 

It’s worth noting here that the original U.S. proposal for strategic arms control included intermediate-range missiles. I believe this approach is worth reconsidering, given Vladimir Putin’s material breach of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. rejoinders, and China’s heavy investments in less-than-intercontinental-range missiles.

If intermediate-range missiles  are included, does it make sense to include medium-range missiles, as well? What about including national missile defense interceptors in agreed aggregates? And if medium-range nuclear-capable missiles are in the mix, what about theater missile defense interceptors? 

A broader scope for nuclear arms control could open up possibilities for trilateral agreements. It could also encourage the clarification of priorities and sensible trade-offs. 

All of this is headache inducing. Units of account and range limits would need to be defined. Dozens of loopholes would need to be nailed shut. Beijing would have to accept uncomfortable monitoring arrangements. The fluidity of trilateral relations precludes treaty making, as does opposition on Capitol Hill. If trilateral accords can somehow be reached, they would likely be term limited. 

If all of this seems way too hard — as it may well be — then we could be staring at term-limited bilateral strategic arms control. I had hoped for more time to mull over what trilateral arms control might look like, but Beijing appears to be in a hurry. So we must be in a hurry, as well. Let’s put our thinking caps on.



  1. Alexis TK27 (History)

    What if the solution to how to include China in trilateral strategic nuclear weapons talks was simpler and easier than is readily apparent?

    The Chinese government seems to be aiming for “equality of treatment” w.r.t. strategic nuclear arms limitation. Giving them precisely that may be the only way to get them on board. And why not?

    It’s obviously desirable to avoid giving China a pretext for extending its strategic nuclear weapons all the way to 1,550 strategic warheads. But the solution to that one is simple: aim for a lower limit, both for the US and Russia.

    For example, if the three powers could agree to a ceiling of 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons for each of them, China would quite probably get to that limit, but they most probably intend to anyway. And transparency on China’s arsenal, similar to current transparency on US and Russia’s arsenal, would be the quid pro quo. A valuable one, I’d propose.