The United States never managed to draw China into the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, but Washington still harbors hopes that it can lean on Beijing — and also Moscow — to sign up for a new strategic nuclear arms control agreement. Naturally, such a deal could significantly curb the wider arms race among global powers by building on the primary existing agreement, New START, which restricts the number of strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems that each signatory can have.
But given the considerable obstacles, including mistrust among nations, the unwillingness of any global heavyweights to compromise and the rapidly approaching deadline to renew or replace New START before it lapses, the efforts to sign a new treaty are more likely to stall than succeed. Ultimately, that's why China — tempted though it may be to join an agreement that could give Beijing greater peace of mind — is likely to demur from entering any pact.
In the 2019 Annual Forecast, Stratfor noted that great power competition would intensify over the course of the year. One of the central components of that rivalry is arms control. In the past year, the United States has walked away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in part because China never joined. Now, however, Washington is attempting to strike a new strategic arms control agreement and expand what has been a largely bilateral, U.S.-Russian framework to include Beijing.
Reason to Join
In spite of China's long refusal to sign a strategic arms control agreement, there are a few reasons why it could join a deal with the United States and Russia. For one, such a treaty would not impose conditions against China's arsenal that are as onerous as those of the INF Treaty — the pact that the United States recently abandoned, in part because Beijing never joined. That's because China does not possess that many strategic nuclear weapons, in contrast to its arsenal of land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with medium and intermediate ranges that vastly exceed those of Russia and the United States. In other words, while a pact similar to the INF Treaty would be a non-starter for China, its objections to joining New START or a successor would not be as clear-cut.
In this, a major determining factor would be the type of limits envisaged for China — is Beijing expected to agree to a lower maximum ceiling on its nuclear weapons inventory in comparison to Russia and the United States, or will all three face an equal ceiling? If the latter occurs, China would be free to pad its strategic nuclear arsenal (which currently stands at around 280 weapons) by a whopping 500 percent. In such a case, China would effectively face no practical numerical limits on its nuclear arsenal, even if it embarked upon a massive weapons expansion.
At present, China is concerned about the survivability of its nuclear deterrent — that is, the ability of its nuclear forces to survive an initial strike and retaliate effectively — due to developments in new technology (hypersonic missiles) as well as the United States' investments in ballistic missile defense. Accordingly, if New START collapsed without an extension or a successor, the United States and Russia would likely seek to beef up their respective strategic arsenals, exacerbating China's fears about the credibility of its deterrent. Given these worries, China could consider joining a new agreement on a parity basis, which would give all signatories an equal ceiling for the size of their arsenals.
Finally, Beijing could agree to sign on to a treaty in exchange for U.S. concessions elsewhere. China and the United States are at loggerheads over a number of issues, ranging from trade to China's expansionary activities in the South China Sea. A Washington offer to concede on some of these points if the two make progress on an arms control agreement could convince Beijing to agree to a strategic nuclear arms control agreement.
Beijing has no wish to limit itself through a new treaty, only for that agreement to prove temporary amid wider disagreements over ballistic missile defense and other issues.
China's Last Word
The possibilities of China's entry notwithstanding, the odds are that it will remain on the outside. To entice Beijing to sign, the United States would, for one, need to avoid limiting China's short and intermediate land-based missiles and agree to parity for all signatories, but Washington is unlikely to make such technical and strategic concessions.
China also has little confidence that any such agreement would last, especially because the United States is uncompromising in its efforts to develop ballistic missile defense, while Russia is unwilling to curb its investment in nuclear delivery weapons that fall outside the purview of New START unless the United States offers heavy concessions. Beijing has no wish to limit itself through a new treaty or a New START extension, only for that agreement to prove temporary amid wider disagreements over ballistic missile defense and other issues (after all, even core legacy arms control treaties like the INF Treaty are proving to be short-lived). In the end, China would face a cost in joining a treaty even in the best of cases, as it would have to submit to a certain degree of inspections and monitoring. This, in turn, would shine a light into the nooks and crannies of China's arsenal — one of the key reasons the United States has been pushing to include China in an arms control pact.
All these issues are likely to hinder progress toward a trilateral strategic arms control treaty among the great powers. Simply put, any successful treaty would require painful concessions from all three countries, but such concessions, and indeed leaps of faith, are rather implausible in the short term given the considerable mistrust and competition that pervades their relations. So while China will politely entertain the idea of joining a New START extension or a successor treaty, it is ultimately likely to remain on the sidelines.