China has rejected any prospect of joining in nuclear talks with the United States and Russia, raising fears that nuclear weapons will become a new issue of contention between Washington and Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Friday that "China's objection to the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations is very clear, and the U.S. knows it very well."
To try to reduce the odds of nuclear annihilation, Washington and Moscow reached a reduction treaty in 2010 that limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads each can possess. As Beijing’s military has steadily grown as a global power, Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said in February that the new pact should include China.
“The president believes that it shouldn’t just be the U.S. and Russia," he said to a group of 50 foreign ambassadors in Washington, adding, “The days of unilateral American disarmament are over.”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said last Thursday in a statement that the special presidential envoy for arms control, Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, would invite China to join in negotiations and that it was time "for dialogue and diplomacy between the three biggest nuclear weapons powers on how to prevent a new arms race."
However, China doubled down on its opposition last week, accusing the U.S. of "playing dumb."
“The U.S. keeps badgering on the issue and even distorted China’s position,” Zhao said.
The US-China nuclear deadlock
The current arms control architecture, which helped keep the world from nuclear annihilation during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War of the 1980s, was a result of years of tough negotiations between Washington and Moscow.
By inviting China to the talks, analysts say Washington essentially is acknowledging Beijing’s status as a military power.
"The U.S. knows it is unlikely that China will join the talks, but the fact that China was invited shows that the U.S. recognizes China as an increasingly very powerful country with a military that the U.S. regards as threatening. That wasn't the case years ago," Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher for the policy research group the RAND Corporation, told VOA.
“The notion of trying to pull the Chinese into that agreement is, in theory, a good idea. In practice? impossible,” former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China has about 320 nuclear warheads, only a fraction of what the U.S. and Russia have. In comparison, SIPRI estimated that the U.S. has 5,800 warheads in its stockpile and Russia has 6,375.
Analysts say that given "the huge gap" between China's nuclear arsenal and that of the U.S. and Russia, "it is unrealistic" to expect China to join the negotiations.
"My view is that the United States is unlikely to convince China to join the nuclear negotiations with Russia. Moscow and Washington retain far more nuclear weapons, so Beijing sees little reason to enter into the negotiations," said Zack Cooper, a former U.S. official working on China-related issues at the White House and the Department of Defense. "So in the view of Communist Party leaders, it is not in their strategic interest to negotiate from a position of weakness," Cooper told VOA.
A senior Chinese diplomat said last week Beijing would be happy to join talks if the U.S. agreed to lower its number of nuclear weapons to match China's.
"I can assure you that if the U.S. says that they are ready to come down to the Chinese level, China will be happy to participate the next day," Fu Cong, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's arms control department, said at a news briefing in Beijing. "But actually, we know that's not going to happen."
Yang Chengjun, a former Chinese nuclear negotiator, said last month that Washington’s true aim is getting China to provide an accurate count of its nuclear weapons. "They invited China to participate in the talks to get to the bottom of our nuclear forces." Yang wrote in the state-run Global Times.
A growing nuclear threat
While the Chinese military currently has far fewer nuclear weapons than the U.S. and Russia, it is widely believed that Beijing has dramatically increased its nuclear capability. The New York Times reported early this month that the American officials surprised their Russian counterparts with a classified briefing on China's threatening nuclear capabilities at a recent negotiation in Vienna. Billingslea described the Chinese program as a “crash nuclear buildup.”
The report said that nuclear weapons are joining the other issues — including trade deals and 5G — that Trump has put at the center of a series of U.S.-China standoffs.
General Robert P. Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said last year that "the resurgence of great power competition is a geopolitical reality." According to a speech posted on the agency's website, Ashley said China launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined in 2018, and over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history.
In Beijing, Washington’s foreign policy choices are increasingly being seen as aggressive and aimed at containing China. They say Chinese officials may see the country’s nuclear weapons program as one way to respond.
“If left unaddressed, this issue would continue fueling China’s anxiety about its nuclear deterrent and seriously disrupting the stability of the bilateral nuclear relationship,” Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, wrote on June 29. He said this comes “at a time when the world’s existing arms control institutions are falling apart and there are public voices within China calling for massive Chinese nuclear expansion."
One of the calls for more weapons came from Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times. Hu argued in a recent Weibo post that “China needs to expand the number of its nuclear warheads to 1,000 in a relatively short time and procure at least 100 DF-41 strategic missiles.”
Last October, China had a massive military parade that displayed some of the country’s most advanced military equipment, including a supersonic drone, hypersonic missile and a robot submarine. But the huge intercontinental-range DF-41 ballistic missile took center stage in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Touted as the most powerful missile on the planet in China, the DF-41 is capable of carrying 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads and could theoretically hit the continental United States in 30 minutes, according to the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.