The conclusion of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia marked a key step along the lengthy road to global nuclear disarmament. However, it did not address another country that is increasingly factored into U.S.-Russia strategic stability calculations: China. Mitigating lingering distrust among these three countries is necessary to forestall derailment of future strategic arms reduction treaties.

In the first event of the “China-Russia Dialogues” seminar series and the fourth installment of the “Strategic Stability Seminar Series,” Carnegie Moscow's Alexei Arbatov met with a panel of Chinese experts to discuss how New START can be seen a prism to explore trilateral strategic stability. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated this event.

Starting from New START

Arbatov described New START as a launching point for future negotiations. There is a possibility that the next strategic arms reduction treaty could reduce strategic arms below a 1,000 ceiling, he noted. However, there are several problems that could derail prospects for future arms reductions.

  • Diminishing Returns: While New START has been criticized for its limited scope, Arbatov argued that this is understandable given that the lower a country’s number of deployed systems becomes, the more likely it is to treat the scope of each successive treaty with caution. Weapons ceilings become less dramatic, as the warheads become less redundant and more capable. As a result, the New START ceiling is 75 percent lower than that of 1991's START I and 30 percent lower than that of 2003's Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). The amount of future reductions is similarly likely to decrease with each successive treaty, he said.
  • Measuring Reductions: Due to the fact that Russia has more nuclear warheads, it faces a greater reduction in overall numbers under New START, argued Arbatov. However, because this reduction would have been necessary anyway, due to the outdated nature of the Russian systems, the United States actually faces more substantial cuts in terms of real capabilities. While reducing strategic arms capabilities during the Cold War was rational and neither side suffered strategically, reducing strategic weapons to below 1,000 in today’s terms would severely affect the strategic capabilities of both countries, he stressed.

Trilateral Ambiguities

Arbatov explained that when it comes to strategic stability, it is often assumed that concerns exist only between the United States and Russia. However, China must also be factored into the equation. Without better understanding the points of agreement and disagreement among the three countries, it will be difficult to move ahead on strategic arms control, he contended.

  • Sprint to Parity: Experts in both Russia and the United States have expressed concern that if their strategic arms fall below 1,000, other nuclear-armed states like China would dramatically increase their strategic arms production, said Arbatov. He suggested that greater transparency from China would assuage many of these concerns. One of the Chinese experts emphasized that China has no interest in expanding its nuclear arsenal. Another noted that while unlikely to augment its numbers, China is also unlikely to increase its transparency for cultural reasons. A Chinese expert disagreed with this assessment stating that hard realism, rather than culture, keeps China from such openness.
  • Conventional Weapons: China and Russia are worried about U.S. advances in precision and speed with systems such as conventional prompt global strike, argued Arbatov. He acknowledged, however, that both China and Russia have their own such programs. One of the Chinese participants asked about other conventional arenas in which China and Russia are expanding their exchanges, such as the joint naval drills to be held from April 22-27 in the Yellow Sea. Another expert added that given the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. deployments on its allies’ soil, China and Russia should engage in even closer military coordination. Arbatov responded that given their lengthy border and China’s increasingly powerful armed forces, China and Russia should naturally increase their security cooperation. Yet, he emphasized that since they lack a common enemy, China and Russia are not necessarily allies.
  • Ballistic Missile Defense: One of the Chinese participants asked whether China and Russia would be likely to jointly develop ballistic missile defense (BMD). Arbatov replied that while there has been discussion between the United States and Russia on conducting greater exchange and even cooperation on missile defenses, the same has not occurred with China. Despite the fact that both Russia and China have BMD programs, he did not think future joint development or deployment were likely. Nonetheless, Arbatov pointed out that when advances in BMD systems and space weapons are combined with U.S. strategic and conventional superiority, China and Russia are finding increasing points of convergence and concern. Faced with this similarity of viewpoint and ongoing U.S.-Russian questions over China’s potential “sprint to parity,” the United States and Russia’s ability to dip beneath a 1,000 strategic arms ceiling becomes less and less likely, he asserted.

Discussants: Ouyang Xiangying, Li Youran, Ren Jingjing, Zhai Dequan, Zou Yunhua, Yang Danzhi, Mao Jikiang, Zhong Zhong, Zhang Min, Zhang Jinmao, Cao Yi, Zhang Weiyu, Zhang Jinmao, Song Zhiqin