The world is witnessing a return to great-power competition and its associated fallout. Arms control is losing support, and a gradual build-up of advanced weapons is happening. The monumental event in this regard would be the expiry of the last significant arms control treaty between the United States (US) and Russia in 2026. In a post-New START world, there would be no legally binding strategic arms control treaty between the US and Russia, and the circumstances surrounding its expiry would significantly increase the challenges in mitigating nuclear risk.
In a post-New START world, the behaviour of both countries would set the direction of arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament issues. Depending upon their behaviour, there can be two possibilities of where these issues would stand.
In the first scenario, the US and Russia demonstrate responsibility for being great powers and take measures to stop the further erosion of arms control. This can be and most likely will be a bilateral arrangement between the two countries. One such measure could be freezing the number of warheads and delivery vehicles at the New-START levels. Such arrangements can serve as confidence-building measures between the two countries while reassuring others about their responsible behaviour.
In a post-New START world, there would be no legally binding strategic arms control treaty between the US and Russia, and the circumstances surrounding its expiry would significantly increase the challenges in mitigating nuclear risk.
In the second scenario, the US continues to excessively worry about China’s economic pre-eminence and militarily counter and seek an unequal arms control arrangement to constrain China. However, China is not yet confident about American intentions and contends that there is a wide disparity between Chinese and US nuclear numbers. An overplay of the China bogey by the US can increase the propensity of an open-ended arms race between the US and China, and even the US and Russia.
Bringing China into strategic arms control is a major demand of the US. China has also been one of the factors in the fallout of the US-Russia strategic arms control. The US believes that China is expanding its nuclear forces, which can undermine nuclear deterrence. However, arms control arrangements with China can be problematic. With around 410 nuclear warheads, Chinese nuclear forces are much smaller than the US and Russian nuclear forces. Setting numerical limits on forces when there is a considerable asymmetry among the three countries is unfair and lacks parity. However, according to the US, the current pace of nuclear expansion can provide China with 1500 nuclear warheads by 2035. To put this into perspective, the US currently possesses 5244 nuclear warheads. Of course, they are bound by New START to limit their deployed warheads number to at most 1550 each. France and the UK have roughly 290 and 225 warheads. The UK is increasing its nuclear warhead numbers for the first time in decades.
Theoretically, China could be allowed to increase its numbers, or the US and Russia will dismantle excessive forces to match Chinese numbers. According to a 2017 study, India has fissile material stocks worth around 2600 warheads and this may also be a factor for China to think about its options for strategic arms control with the US.
On its part, Russia has been demanding the inclusion of British and French nuclear forces in arms control for a long time now, and what likely made Russia suspend the New START was the Western support to Ukraine. Russia might have hoped its suspension may force the US and its allies to rethink their stance on Ukraine.
On the other hand, the countermeasures taken by the US show that the West is more committed to supporting Ukraine in the war than preserving arms control. Nonetheless, if Russia was to convince China to undertake arms control, the US may have to concede to the Russian demands on the UK and France as it would not want China to join by itself. China’s inclusion in arms control may reduce the Chinese threat to the US when the UK and France retain force options as US strategic partners as part of NATO.
In this second scenario, great power competition will hinder arms control. The arguments to talk and negotiate may be marginal, and factors encouraging arms build-up may become decisive. The New START is already facing the heat. After the suspension of the New START by the Russian Federation in February 2023, the US has also announced countermeasures, including biannual data exchange, notifications, inspection activities, and telemetry information to Russia. However, the suspension and countermeasures have not impacted the treaty’s warheads and launch vehicle limits. Both states will be allowed to increase these numbers when the agreement formally expires. The suspension and countermeasures, however, create challenges for compliance verification and act as trust deficit factors.
The overall breakdown of arms control will increase the fragility of security. In the resultant arms race, China may be forced to respond to the US arms increase when free from any treaty limitation with Russia. This is to assume that US-Russia bilateral arms limitation might have discouraged China from a substantial increase in its nuclear forces in the past. Likewise, the US may now have to respond to the nuclear forces of two strategic rivals, contrary to its competition with Russia alone in the past.
Back to the first scenario, as responsible nuclear states, the US and Russia can work to minimise strategic risks and save the benefits of their decades-long experiences. They may preserve their bilateral arms control as a risk reduction measure between them and a confidence-building measure with China. They may consider that instead of directly drawing it into strategic arms control, another possible option can be its inclusion into nuclear risk reduction agreements.
The US and Russia have several bilateral measures, such as advance notification of missile launches, strategic exercises, hotlines, and the Incidents at Sea Agreement. Concluding such agreements with China can provide an opportunity to engage with it and reduce nuclear risks between the US and China. Russia also has similar nuclear risk reduction measures with China. The missing link here is the absence of such agreements between the US and China or, more comprehensively, trilateral measures that would include Russia. However, China and the US signed a Hotline Agreement in 1998 and a Nuclear Weapons De-Targeting Agreement in 1998. This may induce China into strategic arms control, but compelling China may not, and this road may go through in preserving US-Russia bilateral arms control, unlike otherwise.
To conclude, the post-New START picture doesn’t look very optimistic. Great power competition is likely to remain the primary goal of global powers, where they are more interested in maintaining or gaining the upper hand in bilateral or multilateral matters.