US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in the Japanese city of Osaka on Friday. Following the talks, the White House said that the two leaders had agreed to continue discussions on modern-type arms control arrangements, which, according to Trump, would have to include China.
The arms control issue has become especially urgent for Russia and the United States, which are the world's greatest nuclear-weapon states, after the suspension of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which provides for the destruction of all cruise and ground-launched ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,400 miles).
Trump first announced his intention to withdraw from the arms control treaty last October, arguing that it was "unacceptable" for Washington to continue to adhere to the agreement while both Russia and China were allegedly developing weapons prohibited under the treaty. The country eventually suspended its obligations under the treaty on February 2, triggering a six-month withdrawal process, which it promised to complete if Russia did not resume full compliance with the deal. Russia followed suit shortly thereafter.
Moscow and Washington are still bound by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which introduced new limits on the number of deployed nuclear warheads, missiles, heavy bombers and launchers.
However, this agreement is also hanging by a thread because it is set to expire in February 2021, and the two parties have not yet discussed an extension.
China Unlikely to Join, Hope Remains
China has consistently insisted that Moscow and Washington start reducing their nuclear arsenals, Marc Finaud, a former French diplomat and the current head of Arms Proliferation at Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told Sputnik.
"China has already repeated its position that it is up to Russia and the United States, which possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons to start drastically reducing them. When they are close to the Chinese numbers (less than 300 weapons), China could join negotiations," Finaud stated.
According to Finaud, one of Beijing's primary concerns is that the country's defense capabilities could be hampered by the development of anti-missile systems, but if these concerns were somewhat lifted, China might then have a reason for joining arms control negotiations.
"China's main concern, like Russia, is the development of antimissile defence that would hamper its retaliation capacity and, in its view, facilitate a first strike. If mutual constraints in this regard (including related to space-based assets) are offered by the US and Russia, it may be in China's interest to accept some negotiation that would both reduce arsenals and aim at maintaining strategic stability, i.e. the credibility of mutual deterrence," Finaud explained.
Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, agreed with Finaud that China would not consider joining an arms control deal unless Russia and the United States significantly cut their nuclear arsenals.
"The chances for a nuclear arms control deal with China are essentially nil for the foreseeable future. For decades, China has maintained that it will not join the strategic arms control process until Russia and the United States have reduced the scale of their respective arsenals to that of China's," Pollack told Sputnik.
Pollack argued that China would not want to limit its conventional ground-based missiles because they were the main component of the country's defence.
"China's defence strategy relies heavily on a mostly conventional ground-based missile force, so Beijing has very little incentive to accept limits on this category of weapons. The INF Treaty was negotiated without considering a variety of countries that already had ground-based missiles of the type in question," the expert said.
M. V. Ramana, the Simons chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, also did not believe that Beijing would be willing to bind itself with an arms control agreement in the near future.
"I think China would be willing to talk but I don't think that any agreement can be reached within the time frame of when the START needs to be extended. I think China would want significant limits placed on US deployment of ballistic missile defence, and also that any requirement for its arsenal being reduced in size would occur only after Russia and the United States reduce their arsenals significantly, perhaps by a factor of 3 or 5," Ramana told Sputnik.
What About Other Nuclear Powers?
Finaud went on to say that all other countries that were designated as nuclear-weapon states in the historic Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and has since been extended indefinitely, must engage in negotiations on disarmament.
The NPT-designated nuclear powers are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. India, North Korea and Pakistan are confirmed to have carried out nuclear tests but are not parties to the treaty. It is also believed that Israel might have nuclear weapons, but this has not been decisively confirmed so far.
"All five NPT nuclear-weapon states are under the legal obligation to negotiate and achieve nuclear disarmament. So far, only the US and Russia have negotiated bilateral agreements. The P5 [UN Security Council permanent members, which are also the five nuclear-weapon states] is meeting occasionally but not to negotiate, only to discuss possible lowest common denominator. Apart from common statements at the NPT meetings, they only achieved a common glossary so far," Finaud said.
According to the former diplomat, the five nuclear powers also have other issues to discuss that are not directly linked to reducing their arsenals.
"Despite the disparities in numbers of respective arsenals, there are areas where they could go further, such as entry into force of the nuclear test ban, nuclear risk reduction, de-alerting, adopting a non-first use policy, assurances of non-attacks against non-nuclear weapon states, principles of verification, etc.," the expert added.
India, Israel and Pakistan Might Follow Suit
Pollack, in turn, suggested that the process should go even further and, if there was to be a multilateral nuclear arms control deal, not include just the NPT-designated states but also all other countries with nuclear weapons.
"If we were to revive it in a multilateral format now, I see no obvious reason to stop with the nuclear-armed parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What about India, Israel, and Pakistan? What about North Korea?" Pollack said.
Pollack was supported by Ramana, who also thinks that if Beijing decided to join arms control negotiations, all other countries with nuclear weapons may follow suit.
"I think that if China is entering discussions, it would be logical to involve France and the United Kingdom as well since they have roughly similar arsenal sizes. Israel, Pakistan and India cannot be too far behind either," Ramana said.
Pollack, however, also pointed to the fact that there were states that possessed conventional arms that fell within the ranges designated by the INF Treaty, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Taiwan.
"Of course, none of these countries are about to accept the limits of this type. We might as well insist on participation by the Martians. The demand for multilateralisation of INF or any other bilateral treaty fits with the Trump administration's overall approach to arms control, which is to make the perfect the enemy of the good," the expert concluded.
The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and then-US President Ronald Reagan amid the Cold War, which put the world on the brink of a nuclear disaster.
Moscow and Washington decided back then that the treaty would have an unlimited duration and that each side could terminate it by providing compelling evidence substantiating its decision.
The United States has repeatedly voiced concern over Russia's 9M729 missile, which, according to Washington, violates the provisions of the nuclear treaty.
Moscow, however, has refuted US accusations as unsubstantiated, insisting that the missile was tested at the range permitted by the INF Treaty, and said that it was open for dialogue.
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.