China’s no-show at the US-Russian arms control talks in Vienna

Joe Malmkvist and Ian Davis, NATO Watch

29 June 2020

Despite strong pressure exerted by the United States, China did not attend what was planned to be a three-day and three-way arms control discussion in Vienna. Instead, bilateral discussions took place between the United States and Russia. Ambassador Billingslea, the US chief arms control negotiator, openly criticized China’s absence in an online press briefing saying that “the Chinese ( . . . ) have an obligation to negotiate with us and the Russians in good faith, and we intend to hold them to that obligation”. The bilateral US-Russian arms control discussions were welcomed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg who said that arms control agreements are important for the security of all NATO allies.

The last remaining US-Russian arms control deal, the New START agreement, expires in February 2021 and was one of the main talking points during the negotiations in Vienna. In an online press briefing that took place directly after the Vienna talks, Ambassador Billingslea said that the US is willing to contemplate extending New START but only on the condition that a future agreement is multilateral. In principle, the US and Russia agree that a future New START deal should take the changed security environment, including China’s growing power, into account, according to Ambassador Billingslea.

Ambassador Billingslea stressed the importance of including “China’s significant crash nuclear program” and the need to insist on compliance with any new commitments undertaken. The latter was in reference to alleged Russian “behaviours engineered to occur outside of the New START treaty’s constraints”.

Despite “tough discussions” Ambassador Billingslea stated that progress was made, including launching a US-Russian technical working group (although there seemed to be some confusion as to what it will discuss: nuclear warheads and doctrine, according to the US side, or just doctrine, according to Russia), and that a second round of talks in Vienna could happen at the end of July or early August.

According to the NATO Secretary General, “in the absence of any agreement which includes China, I think the right thing will be to extend the existing New START agreement to provide the necessary time to find agreement – US, Russia – but hopefully also with China”. He stressed that failed New START negotiations would not be good for NATO allies, nor the world, stating that” the way to a world without nuclear weapons is balanced, verifiable arms control, disarmament”. In the absence of a New START agreement, Stoltenberg fears a new arms race and a subsequently more unsafe and riskier world for NATO allies.