The future of international nuclear arms control infrastructure based upon global liberal world order is deteriorating rapidly due to lack of implementation in good faith by the major powers. The non-compliance have instilled discord and mistrust among the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). The withdrawal of US and Russia from Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and proposed extension of New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) poses a grave concern to the nuclear disarmament initiatives. The uncertainty among these disarmament architectures impact the credibility and commitment gap of arms control initiatives at international and regional level. Thus, these issue if left unattended would resultantly lead to a new arms race with international and regional ramifications.
A New Cycle of Arms Race
In contemporary era the phenomenon of new arms race is being observed between major powers US, Russia and China at conventional, strategic and tactical level, space and cyber domain. The trend is being established by doctrinal shifts and massive force modernizations. The extent of increase in defense spending can be analyzed from the SIPRI estimates for 2019 which mount up to $ 1917 billion showcasing 3.6% rise from 2018. The US being the largest military spender with over $732 billion has embarked upon a major force modernization with China tailing behind with $ 261 billion and Russia with $ 65.1 billion. The withdrawal from INF also indicates the development of a new range of medium and intermediate range tactical, hypersonic and ballistic missiles, further lowering the nuclear threshold. Moreover, US have devised the budget of USD 1.2 trillion for 2017-2046 nuclear force modernization.
The Future of New START
The future of New START kept the arms control activists in a limbo as the Trump administration had displayed contradictory stance on the extension, while, after the inauguration of the Joe Biden’s administration extended the treaty. On July 17, 2019 between US and Russian delegation headed by US Under Secretary of State and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister in Geneva. During the strategic talks the two sides reportedly thoroughly talked about the extension of the New START. While, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Osaka the US hinted to initiate a three-way treaty that will include US, Russia and also bring China in the ambit of arms control treaties. While, Beijing has categorically stated that it will not become a party to any such initiative as it is not involved in numerical dominance. The major purpose for this measure is to restrict the Chinese intermediated range strategic forces which threaten the US interests in the region, have thrived due to the absence of any arms control agreements.
In order to decide the future of New START negotiations were conducted between the intervening months of September and October 2020 between the US and Russian delegations before the US Presidential Elections. The negotiations were aimed to further extend the New START for a period of five years but the efforts were in vain as both USA and Russia failed to reach a understanding although Russia stating that its willing as much as USA is to extend the Treaty. The basic points of contention for the extension of the treaty were the inclusion of all strategic and non-strategic weapon systems, intermediate nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defense systems and space based weapon systems along with exotic weapons that Russia had recently unveiled. While, USA insisted upon the inclusion of China into the Treaty, Russia persisted to induct UK and France under the fold of the treaty also. The Joe Biden administration even after extending the New START would be facing a crucial challenge of whether to indulge into a new arms race with Russia and China, initiating a vicious cycle which if taken would engulf the major powers into a new arms race surpassing any-thing seen during the Cold War era.
New START since 2010 was able to cap and limit the number of nuclear weapons to the limit at 1550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed heavy bombers and missiles each. The future of New START is shrouded with uncertainty as US and Russia both raised concerns over the emerging advancement and proliferation of exotic weapons delivery systems including cruise, hypersonic and boost glide vehicles, development of new defense systems are being negotiated. The debate of extending the New START for a period of one year and imposition of freeze on the US and Russian nuclear warheads also was not realistic as discussed in October 2020. Russia in a response stated that it applied for the extension of New START for next 5 years upon securing the treaty.
The Biden administration which took the charge of the White House on January 20, 2021 after a very tumulus and controversial elections in US history would be facing among various other issue including putting the US house in order apart from rehabilitating the international nuclear arms control architecture. This would call for formulating, negotiating, and implementing a new arms control initiatives and to abstain from raising conditions which would cause further deterioration of the arms control initiatives. It was feared that if new White House administration and Kremlin fail to reach a conclusion prior to February 5, 2021 then the worlds 90 percent nuclear weapons and warheads would have been left unattended to be regulated and resized under any binding treaty, resulting into a vertical proliferation, thus, leading to a new arms race. While, Biden administration have confirmed to extend the New START for a period of five years and assuring Russia that the deal is still on the table. But the uncertainty looms whether the Washington would go for a unconditional approach for joining the treaty or would try to leverage concessions from the Moscow during the follow on negotiations of the treaty. It is also apprehended that the Biden administration would further continue the nuclear force modernization program as started under the Trump administration, thus, plausibly moving towards new arms race.
The China Factor and the New START
US has repeatedly reiterated that one of the major condition for extending and entering of New START for another term of five years would be subject to China’s inclusion into the treaty, an option which has been categorically rejected by China. The director-general of the Department of Arms Control in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Mr. Fu Cong recently stated that it is of immediate priority of China and international community that the arms control frameworks between USA and Russia must continue in a seamless manner with unconditional extension of the New START. While, he further emphasized that China would not be a part of any trilateral arms control arrangement as conditioned by USA until both Russia and USA agree to reduce their own nuclear arsenal to the level that of China.
The conditions that are being raised by both Washington and Moscow are not limited to the political aspect but also holds strategic and military ramifications. The treaty in itself is not only limited to the scope of caping the size of deployed nuclear warheads and bombers, but also provides a continuous flow of information and checks over the nuclear weapons numbers, keeps checks on force modernization and alert levels, while, reducing the aspect of uncertainty which is essential to maintain effective deterrence posture by both USA and Russia thus, eliminating the chances of any nuclear escalation. This level of uncertainty and flow of information is also welcomed by the security establishments of both sides which would have to use other covert means to verify and monitor the nuclear force structure of the other side and can presumably lead to raising a new iron curtain, peaking inside which would become complex and difficult.
The best course of action that could be undertook by both Washington and Moscow after extend the New START for a further period of five years would be to work through and negotiate the contentious issues that comprise the burning issues of taking into fold the new destabilizing weapons platforms including nuclear powered cruise missiles, hypersonic and boos glide vehicles along with ballistic missile defense systems and space based ISR and weapons systems. The parties to the treaty can then again reconsider to either engage the remaining P-5 also by either allowing mainly China, UK and France to increase their nuclear weapons or USA and Russia to lower their nuclear weapons stockpiles at a level that is being maintained by other P-5 member states. The latter option is much suitable for the future of nuclear disarmament that would ensure that the strategic stability will be maintained and reassure the efficacy and credibility of the nuclear disarmament initiatives for the future. This would further reaffirm the Non-NPT Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States that the credibility and capacity of nuclear weapons disarmament treaties is intact and that the contemporary international order based on liberal institutional system holds credibility and efficacy to reassert itself.
The debate for arms control and nuclear disarmament has been unfortunately for long has been played as self-serving and hollow pledges by the major NWS which have failed to deliver upon them. The withdrawal from the INF had lead to further lower the nuclear threshold as the US would actively develop and deploy tactical nuclear weapons in regions of interest including Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe. The new nuclear architecture developed by the actions of major powers further weaken and deteriorate the efficacy of institutional norms. The efficacy and credibility of new initiatives aiming to implement NPT Article (VI), among other arms control measures remains questionable as the P5 have failed to deliver measurable progress upon the existing arms control and disarmament initiatives especially that of NPT. The future of New START still lies in uncertainty as the major powers are reluctant to enter into any such binding engagement that would curtail and undermine them from projecting their national interests. The Biden-Putin recent negotiations do raise a hope among the arms control and disarmament proponents but the questions of prevalence of new arms race, nuclear force modernization and vertical and horizontal proliferation still remains a major challenge and threat. The emerging nuclear architecture blur the legitimacy of the arms control initiatives and further encourage NNWS to pursue for alternative measures including nuclear weapons program to secure their interests. Thus, resulting in proliferation of nuclear weapons which threaten world peace and security. The major powers should for once initiate a robust implementation upon their aforementioned commitments in good faith rather than devising frameworks for achieving their limited interests. The arms race at international level have a trickle down impact on the regional level states and states even though if they want to maintain strategic stability.