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International relations

Arms race for peace? US ups the ante to bring China to table

Cold War-era strategy aims to alter Beijing's calculations

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana is seen at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Washington. Ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are a central part of America's nuclear deterrence. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

TOKYO -- Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the arms control and reduction treaties that have contributed to peace have begun to fall apart.

The Trump administration is intent on going back to the drawing board and including China, holding that the current regime focusing primarily on the U.S. and Russia does not fit the new realities of the world.

But in a hostile climate, trust seems in short supply among the players to get a deal done. The geopolitical calculations also differ greatly from when the previous agreements were inked.

"Despite the actions by the United States to lead the world in reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, U.S. adversaries have gone in the other direction and placed greater emphasis on modernizing ... improving, expanding their nuclear arsenals," said Drew Walter, performing the duties of deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, in May.

"We must pursue simultaneous, just-in-time replacement of the forces, warheads and infrastructure that underpins the enterprise," he said in a virtual event for the Virginia-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The U.S. has not tested any nuclear weapons since September 1992. Yet speculation is mounting that China is secretly preparing to restart its own testing.

The U.S. and Russia suspended their Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in early 2019, with Washington formally withdrawing that August. The Trump administration announced its intent this past May to leave the Open Skies Treaty, a 34-nation agreement that lets countries fly over one another's territory to increase transparency and avoid miscalculations.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told legislators that China's arsenal of intermediate-range missiles deserves an American response.   © AP

When American and Russian negotiators met in Vienna this June to discuss arms control, U.S. negotiator Marshall Billingslea said any new agreement must include all nuclear weapons, not just strategic ones, and also subject China to restrictions.

China, meanwhile, has little incentive to join an arms control treaty at this time.

So Washington looks to have concluded that the only way forward is to break free of existing treaties, engage in an arms race with China, and force decision-makers in Beijing to decide that they would be better off joining a treaty, just as the Soviets did.

But there is no guarantee that a new framework can be agreed to, or when that day will even come.

Certain conditions must exist for countries to sign an effective arms control treaty. First, politicians and military officers in charge of the armed forces must recognize the merits.

In the years after World War I, major powers signed treaties to limit naval construction. These were made possible by overlapping interests between the U.S. and the U.K. -- which wanted to thwart Japan's naval rise -- and a Japan that did not want the West to gain more of a military advantage than it already had.

Decades later, the Soviet Union was motivated by its own economic weakness and a desire to curtail American technological advances when it signed the INF and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Washington near the end of the Cold War.

The second requirement is mutual trust. The INF Treaty became the first-ever treaty to actually reduce deployed nuclear weapons, partly because the Americans and the Soviets agreed to extensive verification procedures to ensure that neither party was cheating.

But arms control treaties can also collapse under different conditions -- such as when countries develop new weapons and tactics that undermine existing agreements, when they lose trust in each other, or when new powers not bound by existing treaties emerge.

The post-World War I naval treaties ultimately fell apart with the rise of carrier-based aircraft, which they did not sufficiently restrict, as well as a growing rift between Japan and the U.S. over Asia.

A similar reality lay behind the collapse of the INF.

When North Korea tested a long-range missile for an intermediate operation, the boundaries between long and intermediate blurred, negating the INF's rationale.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the House Armed Services Committee in December that "China has thousands of intermediate-range missiles along their periphery, along their eastern coast," making it necessary for the U.S. to also have such missiles.

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