Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wants China to join negotiations on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The treaty, which caps the number of deployed US and Russian nuclear warheads at 1550 each, is scheduled to expire in 2021.
China has a no first use policy and is believed to store its warheads separately from its missiles. Under the definition of the current treaty, China would therefore have zero deployed weapons.
It is difficult to believe Pompeo seriously considered the implications of Chinese participation in the New START treaty. If China were to become a party to the agreement, it would expect to be treated as an equal. There would need to be common limits on the number of warheads and launchers each country would be permitted to retain and deploy.
Making China subject to the same restrictions as the United States and Russia would present both countries with a very difficult choice. They would have to decide whether to reduce their numbers of deployed warheads to zero or to allow China to engage in a massive nuclear build up to match US and Russian numbers. They could agree to change the terms of the treaty to include both deployed and stored warheads, which would capture China’s warheads, but then it would also capture the additional 2,000-3,000 warheads that both the United States and Russia have in storage. US and Russian negotiators would then need to find a way to eliminate an even larger disparity in numbers between their countries and China.
A Quick Look at Those Numbers
China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more. Current US estimates indicate China can deliver about 140 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States with its approximately 80 ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 1,920 warheads on its 240 SLBMs. The US arsenal also currently includes 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed cruise missiles that are delivered by aircraft. China does not currently deploy any of its nuclear weapons on aircraft.
The current New START agreement caps the total of US and Russian deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons at 700. Assuming new negotiations produced a 50% reduction in those numbers—a result many nuclear arms control experts would justifiably herald as a stunning success for the Trump administration—China would be allowed to add several hundred ICBMs and SLBMs to its current arsenal
A significantly larger Chinese nuclear arsenal doesn’t sound like a very good outcome for the United States or its Asian allies.
So What was Pompeo Thinking?
One possibility is that the secretary thinks China’s nuclear arsenal is much larger than it actually is, perhaps due to misinformation circulated in Washington a few years ago.
Not long after Pompeo won his seat in Congress an adjunct professor at Georgetown University submitted a Pentagon-funded report suggesting China had approximately 3,000 nuclear weapons buried in a network of tunnels. The study received a favorable review from the Washington Post and gained some currency on Capitol Hill.
But the study was very poorly done. Its conclusions were based on spurious Chinese sources found by Georgetown undergraduate students using keyword searches of public Chinese websites. Their professor, Phillip Karber, misrepresented a collection of general questions about China’s nuclear arsenal posted on personal Chinese blogs as a secret Chinese military document stating China’s nuclear arsenal was ten times larger than current US estimates.
Peter Navarro, one of the leading voices on China within the Trump administration, cited Karber’s numbers in one of his books. He also claimed China’s leaders were so confident in the success of their nuclear modernization program that they were willing to start a nuclear war, a claim that appears to have influenced the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which suggests China would resort to nuclear first use if it were losing a conventional war with the United States. It’s possible Pompeo’s thinking has been influenced by this kind of talk in the White House.
The next time Secretary Pompeo appears before Congress, someone should ask for his views on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal and his assessment of the Chinese policies guiding how and when it might be used.
Another possibility is that the secretary is using the requirement of Chinese participation to try to diminish expectations for an extension of the New START treaty. Lack of Chinese inclusion was one of the principal reasons cited by the Trump administration in its decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. There is no indication Pompeo approached China about joining the INF treaty or participating in negotiations on the New START treaty. Perhaps that’s because he assumes China isn’t interested.
China consistently rejects multilateral arms control negotiations. It prefers international negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. So trilateral talks with Russia and the United States are unlikely. However, Chinese arms control experts often point out that China would be willing to enter into multilateral nuclear arms control negotiations when the United States and Russia reduce their numbers to levels approximately the same as the rest of the nuclear weapons states, which hover in the middle hundreds rather than in the thousands.
Chinese President Xi Jinping should seize the opportunity presented by Pompeo’s remarks to engage the United States on Chinese participation in New START talks that would result in dramatically lower limits on the size of US and Russian nuclear forces. Chinese arms control experts seem prepared to tackle the difficult technical issues involved in the verification of an agreement on deep nuclear cuts. They’ve been discussing verification issues at international arms control conferences ever since China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.
Secretary Pompeo may not have intended to open the door to substantial nuclear reductions, but Xi would be remiss if he let this opportunity slip by without at least making an effort to further the discussion.