The Japan Forum on International Relations

December 16,2021

Discussions on strategic stability among the U.S., China, and Russia

      “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Who is the author of these words? It is not the former president Barack Obama, who appealed for a “world without nuclear weapons”. This is a joint statement made 36 years ago by the then-President Ronald Reagan and the recently elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, after a U.S.-Soviet Union summit held in Geneva (November 21, 1985). This sentence represents the basic principles for nuclear disarmament agreed upon by the two nuclear superpowers during the meeting. They recognized that any conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have catastrophic consequences and stressed the importance of preventing both conventional and nuclear wars. Before this summit, in 1982, President Reagan had proposed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). It was in the middle of the harsh Cold War era. Then, following the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, the two heads of state signed the 1987 INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty. I personally witnessed the two leaders signing the treaty in Washington D.C. Later, in July 1991, after the end of the Cold War, President George H. W. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev signed the START and pledged to deactivate thousands of nuclear weapons. The New START treaty was signed in April 2010, and in late January 2021, a few months before its expiration, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone meeting and agreed to extend the agreement by five years.

      The current U.S.-Russian relations have been built on the basis of these multiple negotiations. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook of January 2021, the U.S. currently has 5,550 nuclear warheads, Russia 6,255, and China 350. The nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia have been constantly shrinking since the 1987 INF and are expected to decrease even further as they age and are retired. Will the U.S. be able to advance trilateral discussions—with Russia and China—on strategic stability, based on the principles jointly stated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Geneva? Unlike in the case of Russia, we don’t have the foggiest idea how the talks with China develop.

      First, the reinforcement of Russian military forces requires caution. The country has recently deployed a submarine-launched cruise missile system known as Kalibr, which can be equipped with both nuclear and non-nuclear warheads, and placed the hypersonic glide vehicle “Avangard”, designed to breach anti-missile defense, on combat duty. The nation also recently conducted an anti-satellite missile test, generating over 1,500 pieces of space debris. This is the second anti-satellite missile test after China’s experiment in 2007, and it served as a reminder that the U.S. and Russia will have to discuss regulations on space weapons in the future.

      Despite having an economy of the size of South Korea, Russia still tries to show its citizens that, as a superpower of the Cold War era, the nation remains an authority in nuclear disarmament negotiations. Some specialists in China taunt Russia as “Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons”. In the global power scenario, Russia is contented with its position as “China’s junior partner” (Harvard University Professor Stephen M. Walt), but between the U.S. and Russia, there must be a common understanding of the nuclear deterrence theory and discussions focused on strategic stability. At first glance, China and Russia, whose authoritarian regimes are heavily criticized and pressured by Western nations, may seem to be in synchrony at the international stage. Their actual relationship, however, is surrounded by mutual distrust; hence, it would be unwise to push the two countries into a quasi-alliance even further.

      Meanwhile, how is the dialogue with China developing? China has not joined the New START treaty despite appeals from the U.S. to participate in its nuclear disarmament negotiations with Russia. China, however, shows no sign of willingness to acquiesce. It is speculated that this is because China seeks parity with the U.S. and Russia in terms of the total number of nuclear warheads. Also, while the nuclear forces of the U.S. are gradually aging, China is steadily modernizing its arsenal. It is also building many underground facilities for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which prompted the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, advisory of the United States Congress, to declare that “these qualitative and quantitative changes to China’s nuclear forces signal a clear departure from the country’s historically minimalist nuclear posture” (2021 Annual Report published on November 17).

      President Biden and President Xi Jinping held a virtual U.S.-China summit on November 15 (U.S. time) and agreed to maintain dialogue to avoid accidental military clashes. Mr. Biden is also said to have expressed his concern about China’s rapid expansion of nuclear forces. While its arsenal is significantly smaller than that of the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. Department of Defense estimates it can grow to at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 (the annual report on Chinese Military Power published on November 3). On November 16, the U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan revealed, in a Q&A session of a Brookings Institution webinar, that during the U.S.-Russia summit, the two parties agreed to proceed with “dialogues on strategic stability”. Mr. Sullivan said that “You will see at multiple levels an intensification of the engagement to ensure that there are guardrails around this competition so that it doesn’t veer off into conflict”. While it feels as though the countries ended the summit without any progress, it may lead to a new phase of nuclear arms negotiations.

      However, how concrete discussions for strategic stability will proceed is unknown. Its circumstances are different from those of arms control negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, which even developed into an official framework through its long history. Therefore, the participants still have to find the best way to approach it, which means nuclear disarmament negotiations will not begin immediately. Whether those negotiations will be a three-country framework—U.S., China, and Russia—or a two-country framework—U.S. and China or U.S. and Russia—is still to be discussed. It is speculated that, if the U.S. and China initiate talks regarding strategic stability, the Senior Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Air Force General Xu Qiliang, will be the liaison officer in charge. The main topics of the discussions will be nuclear weapons, cyber security, and how to report to each other in the event of a crisis.

      Meanwhile, after the summit, President Biden declared he is considering launching a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled for February 2022. Hence, the U.S. and China will enter a new phase for strategic stability amidst a tense atmosphere in their relations. Can the Geneva Principles of 36 years ago be shared between the two countries? Perhaps China will show signs of willingness to discuss nuclear disarmament and, at the same time, produce no concrete result whatsoever and steadily expand its arsenal instead. Therefore, there is a treacherous road ahead; it is necessary to avoid miscalculations and find a way to evade global catastrophe.

(This is the English translation of an article written by SASAJIMA Masahiko, Professor, Atomi University, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on November 21, 2021.)