If you want to understand just how badly US negotiations to control the spread of nuclear weapons are going, all you need to do is look at a tweet from the country’s top arms control negotiator.
On Monday, Marshall Billingslea began two days of talks with his Russian counterpart over how to possibly extend New START, a 2011 deal that limits the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Among other things, it allows Washington and Moscow to keep tabs on each other’s nuclear programs through stringent inspections and data sharing — thereby curbing mistrust about each other’s nuclear and military plans.
The treaty is in effect until early next year, but there’s an option for President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the accord up to five years, which the Kremlin has already said it’s willing to do without preconditions. But as of now, even with negotiations underway, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen — meaning the last major nuclear accord between the world’s two largest nuclear powers is nearing extinction.
Here’s why: The Trump administration, which has already withdrawn from other arms control treaties because it felt they benefited Russia more than the US, doesn’t want to extend the agreement until and unless China decides to join in on it. “The president has directed us to think more broadly than the current arms control construct and pursue an agreement that reflects current geopolitical dynamics and include both Russia and China,” a senior administration official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’re continuing to evaluate whether New START can be used to achieve that objective.”
That’s why the US extended an “open invitation” to Chinese officials to join the US and Russia in Austria this week, even though Beijing has long said it won’t sign on to New START since its arsenal of around 300 bombs is so much smaller than Washington’s and Moscow’s. The Chinese government didn’t accept the offer, leading Billingslea to take a swipe at the country on Twitter.
This was not taken well by Russia or China. The Russians reportedly asked for the flags to be taken down ahead of the meeting, and the top arms control official in China’s foreign ministry blasted Billingslea in response to the tweet.
What an odd scene! Displaying Chinese National Flags on a negotiating table without China’s consent!
Good luck on the extension of the New START!
Wonder how LOW you can go?
— Fu Cong 傅聪 (@FuCong17) June 22, 2020
It’s worth noting that experts agree China should adhere to some form of modern-day arms control since it’s rapidly building up a formidable arsenal. A future with unrestrained Chinese nuclear, hypersonic, and cyber development is unquestionably a more dangerous one, they say.
But those same experts also note there’s little to no chance of having China join New START.
Which only leaves one conclusion: The Trump administration’s pressure on China is really about something else. “This is all kabuki designed to give Trump an excuse to withdraw from New START,” Caitlin Talmadge, a nuclear expert at Georgetown University, told me.
How America’s China obsession could soon decimate US-Russia arms control
The talks in Vienna are seemingly off to a bad start, and America’s focus on China may be a big reason why.
“The US administration currently is so obsessed with China,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the lead negotiator for Moscow, told reporters on Monday. “The Chinese idea overshadows, in my view, everything else.”
That’s important — not because a Russian official said it, but because nuclear negotiations are hard. They require hashing out very specific details and wheeling and dealing from both sides, which inevitably eats up a lot of time. It took the Obama administration and Russia about seven months to negotiate the original bilateral deal, with sustained involvement from the Oval Office. If the Trump administration’s goal is to beef up New START instead of simply extending it for up to five years, then it’s quickly running out of time.
Should the US remain obsessed with getting China involved against its wishes, though, then it’s likely real negotiations can’t begin in earnest, some experts say.
“The US focus on China is sucking all of the oxygen out of bilateral talks with Russia,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, a nuclear expert at the PIR Center, a think tank in Moscow. “With China adamantly opposing joining the trilateral arms control negotiations, Washington might end up with no agreements with either Moscow or Beijing, but with some viral photos.”
Talmadge also worries about that possibility. “That would be a terrible mistake and represent the first time in decades that the two largest nuclear powers in the world — the United States and Russia — lack a treaty constraining their strategic nuclear weapons,” she told me.
Indeed, Trump has already withdrawn from two arms control treaties featuring Russia, loosening the restrictions on both countries’ arsenals and military movements. Losing New START would completely untether the two from each other and give both capitals more freedom to build up their stockpiles. That could be good news for Russia, which already wants to greatly enhance the weapons it has.
Billingslea’s tweet, then, was meant as some triumphant, bombastic play to compel China to the negotiating table. Instead, Billingslea demonstrated that the US is really playing itself — and putting the world in danger in the process.
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