In 2009, US President Barack Obama pledged to seek a world without nuclear weapons. However, while he delivered on his promise to negotiate a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia a year later, progress has since stalled. To break the deadlock, the current bilateral framework for negotiation, which has remained largely unchanged since the Cold War, must be transformed into a trilateral framework that includes China.
To be sure, such a move would significantly complicate negotiations. After all, while decades of bilateral dialogue have given the US and Russia a good sense of each other’s strategic perspectives — including the issues on which they disagree — China’s perception of strategic stability is unfamiliar.
However, trilateral dialogues, catalyzed by skillful US diplomacy, could also serve as an opportunity to manage the countries’ strategic relations, which currently are characterized by contradictions and mistrust.
Russia seeks China’s support in opposing US missile-defense systems, and calls for the involvement of all nuclear states in future strategic arms-control talks, but then cites concerns about China’s military modernization to justify its refusal to negotiate with NATO on tactical nuclear-weapon reduction.
China, which has never adopted legally binding limits on its nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear-delivery vehicles, rejects Russia’s call to join negotiations — a stance that the US supports until the Russian and US nuclear arsenals move closer in size to those of China.
At the same time, US officials deny that their country’s missile-defense programs are directed against Russia or China, but refuse to offer a legally binding guarantee.
The US Department of Defense is developing a robust program of long-range conventional strike weapons, which China and Russia cite to justify their efforts to strengthen their offensive nuclear forces.
Although multilateral cooperation on nuclear issues has been effective in some cases, such as in ratifying the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it has been inadequate in others, such as in easing tensions with Iran and North Korea.
In fact, even when China, Russia, and the US share the same agenda, their differing diplomatic tactics often undermine their ability to achieve their objectives.
For example, the three countries’ policies are inadvertently contributing to proliferation pressures in Asia and Europe.
US pledges to defend Japan against a nuclear attack from China or North Korea have played a decisive role in dissuading the Japanese from seeking their own nuclear weapons.
Given this, a Chinese nuclear surge — even one that did not lead to US-China parity — could undermine the credibility of US deterrence commitments, possibly motivating Japan to launch its own nuclear program.
Similarly, some of NATO’s newer members, many of which are former Soviet-bloc states, are anxious about the prospect of Russian rearmament. As a result, they oppose efforts to reduce the number of US nuclear weapons in Europe, part of NATO’s “nuclear sharing” policy.
Perhaps the biggest single obstacle to initiating a trilateral dialogue is Chinese resistance to formal nuclear arms-control agreements, which is rooted in the memory of Cold War-era nonproliferation initiatives aimed partly at preventing China from developing its own nuclear deterrent.