Trilateral Arms Control Initiative between US, Russia and China

Author Name: Hananah Zarrar      07 Oct 2020     Defense

Since the Cold War and disintegration of Soviet Union, various nuclear arms control agreements have remained an important component of the bilateral relationship between the United States (US) and Russia. In fact, these have been a major stabilizing factor between the two traditional rival states. The Trump administration and its shift from globalism towards nationalism, resultantly dissolved a number of bilateral agreements like the Iran JCPOA deal and stepped back from a number of multilateral accords such as the climate change Paris Agreement. Consequently, the US lost its credibility for any future cooperative engagements under its present leadership. After its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) -the only major bilateral nuclear agreement is now breathing its last. As the expiry date of the Treaty approaches i.e. February 2021, the US wants the decades-long framework of bilateral arms control to be reframed in a trilateral structure with the inclusion of China as a third tier via extension and modification of the New START.

Recently, the Trump administration showed flexibility in its demand of Chinese participation in the trilateral nuclear arms control talks with Russia. The US is now seeking a politically binding framework with Russia that covers all nuclear warheads, establishes a verification regime, and could include China in the future. Yet, there is divergence on key issues where Russia is demanding an unconditional extension of the Treaty, while the US administration opposes it with calling for limiting all types of nuclear warheads possessed by Russia as a condition for prolonging the Treaty.

The new arms control arrangement proposed by the US will be difficult for China to accept due to the existing asymmetry between their nuclear arsenals.US-China relations are proceeding in a downward spiral with accelerating trade war and failing bilateral engagements. Given the escalating level of mistrust, China would remain reluctant to join any bilateral or trilateral engagements with the US in near future or at least until the current leadership dissolves. Moreover, given the difference in the size of its nuclear arsenal vis-à-vis two of the biggest nuclear weapon states, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the US‘ neither serious nor sincere’ in the proposed negotiations and instead emphasized extension of the existing New START treaty limiting the number of nuclear warheads bilaterally.

There are several major reasons behind Chinese reluctance to join a trilateral arrangement of nuclear arms control. Firstly, the asymmetric nature of nuclear arsenals between the three states -where the US and Russia hold 20 times more nuclear warheads and more efficient delivery systems than China. The Chinese government also wants the US to cut down the number of its nuclear warheads from around 5 to 6 thousands to a few hundred and reach the level of China, which is rather unrealistic given the status of foremost nuclear weapon states, matured doctrines and evolving postures of both leading nuclear weapon states. Lastly, the current US administration and its policies aimed at containing China, is another major cause for concern at least till the presidential elections and formation of a new administration in the US.

Here, two predictive perspectives arise. Firstly, China is likely to remain reluctant towards the idea of its inclusion in any future arms control arrangement. Contrarily, the new administration -possibly Democrat – with strong advocacy of nuclear arms reduction, could convince China with its negotiable conditions in formulating a completely new framework of future nuclear arms control. The scope and dimension of such an arrangement will strengthen the general ambitions of arms control and disarmament globally. This is due to the fact that inclusion of a third-tier in such a strategic arms control accord may bring greater consensus and pave way towards future multilateral arrangements. Such arrangements would be able to attract other nuclear weapon states to demonstrate their credibility via increased responsible approach towards non-proliferation and arms control ambitions. Where it remains necessary to extend New START between the existing two party states, China’s inclusion maybe decisive in evaluating whether a major bilateral arms control would be equally successful once upgraded to three-tiered or multi-tiered structure or not.

Despite the current circumstances, a trilateral arms control model holds some individual gains for China and Russia. While accepting the proposition, along with the status of a strong contemporary economic power, China would step into the status of strategically significant power with the two foremost nuclear weapon states. Thus, providing China another reason to strengthen its regional hegemonic status. Russia supported Chinese stance of staying away from arms control accord because Russia finds it logical due to greater asymmetry in nuclear arsenal of Beijing vis-à-vis Moscow or Washington. Inclusion of third-tier in strategic arms control that has similar bitter and competitive relations with the US, would likely strengthen Sino-Russian joint position within the framework later.

The nature of an initial trilateral model could be one that has China as the arbitrator for cutting down the warhead numbers where future negotiations could be possible under equal criteria. The emerging cooperative nature of Russo-Chinese relations regionally, is another aspect that may convince China to join such arrangement that would directly put pressure on the US in any contradictory scenario or treaty formed under the trilateral model of nuclear arms control. Russia and China are moving closer to each other in the Asia-Pacific region, in terms of political and military competition with the US. This politico-military cooperation and mutual regional interests could later impel Russia to back the Chinese stance of bringing the ‘majority-rule criterion’ within the trilateral arms control agreements.

However, keeping in view the current stance of all three relevant parties, any progress in preserving the only major strategic arms control treaty between the US and Russia is now likely to occur post-US presidential elections.


-Hananah Zarrar is a Researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad. This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy. She can be reached at