The end of Mueller inquiry and its conclusion that Russia had played no role in influencing the US presidential elections has seemingly opened the way for a new global arms treaty, one that would also include countries like China, Britain, France apart from the US and Russia. Importantly enough, the initiative for a new treaty has been taken by the Trump administration, which is looking at it as its key foreign policy prize before the next US presidential elections. According to reports in the mainstream western media, the US president/the White House is currently involved in intense inter-agency talks to develop a new treaty, building off the new START treaty, which is due to expire in 2021.
By aiming to include countries other than Russia and the US itself, the purpose is to not just expand the scope of the treaty but also to make countries like China to first declare then limit and/or verify their actual capability for the first time. According to a US official quoted by CNN, “The President has made clear that he thinks that arms control should include Russia and China and should include all the weapons, all the warheads, all the missiles.”
The proposal to include China is particularly interesting given how fast the gap between the US and Chinese military spending has reduced in the last few years, compelling the US to pay attention to it since China already has acquired the capability to hit the US directly. For instance, if the US total defence spending was nine times that of China at the start of the century, in 2010 it was already down to six times. And, continuing the previous trend, the difference was less than three times in 2017. Russia fell out of the list of top five spenders for the first time since 2006. Its military spending decreased by 3.5% from 2017.
But, according to the latest report of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world is already spending a lot more on defence than it did in previous years. But the basic most and the biggest manifestation of a boom in defence spending is the increasing competition between China and the US for primacy in Asia, the continent with biggest share of global trade. For instance, the current volume of trade between Asia and Europe is US$ 1.6 trillion, and between Asia and North America it is US$ 1.4 trillion, and US$1.1 trillion between North America and Europe. Trade volumes are, therefore, highest with Asian links; hence, the struggle for primacy.
The Discontents of Primacy and Arms Control
If this increasing defence spending plus the increasing importance of Asia, where China and Russia are located, in global economics make any case, it is for an even more increasing competition, an arms race, rather than a new strategic arms reduction treaty. But the US proposal tells a different story.
Notwithstanding the possibility or impossibility of doing this treaty, there are some serious discontents that nonetheless matter, and which might end the treaty before it even begins.
To begin with, there are within the Trump administration potential spoilers, who are known opponents of such arms reduction treaties. John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, tops the list of course. In fact, while the US withdrew from the INF in 2018-19, Bolton had been preaching this step since at least 2014, when he wrote that (alleged) Russian “violations give America the opportunity to discard obsolete, Cold War-era limits on its own arsenal and to upgrade its military capabilities to match its global responsibilities.” Within Bolton’s though-processes, therefore, it is armament rather than disarmament that fits and that must be pursued in order for the US to smoothly pursue its so-called and self-declared “global responsibilities.” John Bolton, for his such particular thoughts, has been rightly called the “serial killer of arms control.”
With Bolton in the White House as Trump’s NSA, the question of how serious the Trump administration is in pursuing a new treaty is real and serious enough to pay consideration. Some in the mainstream western media have even gone to the length of saying that the talk of a new treaty might be Bolton’s trick to exit another cold-war era treaty that people in the White House see as “outdated and constraining.” Many believe that Bolton has his gaze fixed on the New START treaty that limits long-range nuclear forces. That treaty expires in 2021, unless the US and Russia extend it. Otherwise, it will be for the first time since 1972 that there will be no limits on the US and Russian nuclear forces.
It appears that the US policy is to not extend this treaty but make a new treaty that would include China. Including China, as mentioned, makes sense for the US But the question is: will China agree to such an arrangement?
Apparently China has welcomed the initiative, but Chinese understanding of strategic arms reduction is different from that of the US and Russia, who have thousands of nuclear warheads among themselves as against China’s few hundred. Therefore, in order for China to agree to arms reduction, Chinese authorities are likely to impress upon both Russia and the US to first bring their own arsenal down enough to ask China to enter into the deal.
This is where the whole scenario gets tricky. China is likely to ask the US and Russia something that both would not want to do because of obvious reasons. Russia has already said that any new treaty would have to be multilateral. As such, if the US (and Russia) cannot bring their own arsenal down enough to match China’s, there will be no new treaty, giving Bolton and his likes an ideal scenario to push for an ever-increasing armament, re-creating a Cold War scenario in the absence New START or any treaty for that matter.
It cannot be emphasized enough that such a scenario suits US interests. A high-tension scenario and global arms race would mean the US once again will have the opportunity to (re)establish its tentacles in the many regions it has already lost to China and Russia.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.