Demotivating Factors for China in Joining the New START Treaty

Authors:Mohammed Seid Ahmed and Makam Khan Daim

On February 5, 2011, the New START treaty came into force as a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty also known as START between Russia and the United States. The treaty gives the signatories a seven-year time frame to reduce the number of their strategic Offensive weapons and technology, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) launchers and deployed and non-deployed heavy equipped to carry nuclear armaments. The treaty that was set to expire in February 2021, was extended for another five years “limits each side to no more than 800 deployed and nondeployed land-based ICBM and SLBM launchers Within that total, each side can retain no more than 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear armaments. The treaty also limits each side to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads”.  According to an article from the U.S. State Department on the treaty, the verification regime includes, “on-site inspection and exhibitions, data exchanges and notification”.

Trump administration and some American politicians were arguing that the rising power of China needs to be included if the treaty is going to be renewed in 2021. However, China remained uninterested in signing such an agreement with the two military powers, Russia and the United States for various reasons. This section will cover the motivating and demotivating factors for China in joining the New START treaty and what it means to the world if the current arms race continues without any agreement to limit and possibly reduce the destructive nuclear weapons.

China has first conducted a nuclear test during Mao’s Era on October 16, 1964, and consequently “called for the complete prohibition on, and destruction of, nuclear weapons.” The PRC further states China’s “no-first-use” (NFU) policy and subsequently called for “abandonment of the “nuclear umbrella” and an end to any overseas nuclear deployments”. The opening-up of China by the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978 has re-introduced China to the world and subsequently signed different multilateral agreements as a nuclear-armed country. Accordingly, Deng’s China has become a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – 1984, Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – 1992, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and Nuclear Suppliers Group in 1994. Therefore, if China is part of all these multilateral agreements, why is it refusing or uninterested in joining the New START treaty agreement?

In recent years China has taken different measures to modernize its weaponry including its nuclear arsenals. According to the 2020 United States Department of Defense (D.O.D) report on China to Congress, China has seriously intensified the modernization effort to achieve what they call it “world-class” military by 2035. Military modernization includes the development of high range ICBMs and other missile technologies. Today, the world possesses a total of 13,355 nuclear weapons, where Russia owns about 6,370 and the United States 5,800. Article published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimates China’s nuclear weapons as 290.

The modernization of the Chinese military intensified after President Xi came to power and despite the increase in the defense budget and modernization of its nuclear weapons, China has refused to join strategic arms control agreements. Some argue that “China has been forced to develop and modernize its nuclear arsenal, have revealed over a dozen explanations why the PRC cannot risk entering into strategic arms control negotiations with Washington or, for that matter, Moscow.” However, China has agreed to “non-targeting” of strategic nuclear missiles and no-first use (NFU) with Russia and the U.S., in 1994 and 1998 respectively.  

China has always maintained its stance on its nuclear and ballistic missile program as deterrence from perceived enemies including the United States. argued that “the debate within China relative to its nuclear force modernization doubtless includes arguments about “how much is enough?”. It is not clear whether China is seeking parity with Russia and the United States in its nuclear possession or to surpass them. China’s strategy has always been perceived by some experts as pursuing defensive realism, where it is protecting its interest and military threat from the heavily nuclear-armed countries mainly the United States. China’s military modernization also includes the development of hypersonic missile vehicles that are capable of delivering nuclear warheads. China is only the third country after Russia and the United States to develop this extraordinary missile. The WU-14 is China’s first hypersonic missile vehicle glide. As S. J. Cimbala observed, “hypersonic vehicles create two challenges for existing missile defense systems, which are designed to counter slower, less manoeuvrable weapon systems. Hypersonic weapons travel at speed of Mach 5 to Mach 10 (3,840 to 7,680 miles per hour).” China’s commitment in developing this weapon shows how serious the leadership is to catch up and even try to surpass the traditional superpower the United States and even Russia.

Despite engaging in an arms race with the United States and Russia, China still maintains that its nuclear and ICBMs program is only for deterrence purposes and has stated its commitment to NFU. For instance, China’s 2012 Defense White Paper stated that “if China comes under a nuclear threat, the nuclear missile force will act upon the orders of the CMC, go into a higher level of readiness, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China”. However, there is a lack of clarity on the interpretation of China’s perception of threat. Just a declaration of war by the United States on China constitutes a nuclear missile threat that could force China to respond or for China to respond it must be attacked first remains an open question.   

All the literature and research available is an indication, China will not join the New START treaty any time soon for various reasons. According to the Congressional Commission’s study of the People’s Republic of China, China is not part of arms control treaties including the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty that the other two military powers Russia and the U.S. are part of. After his ascendant to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping made one of his first public meeting with the People’s Liberation Army where he calls on the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) “to build a powerful and technological missile force” which is according to Xi “the core strength of China’s strategic deterrence, the strategic support for the country’s status as a major power, and an important cornerstone safeguarding national security.” Therefore, with Xi’s calculation China will not enter any agreement until it achieves its goal of “offensive and defensive strategy/capabilities for long-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts including those involving the United States interventions”.

Mohammed Seid Ahmed
Mohammed Seid Ahmed
Freelancer (M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, currently based in California, the US) Mohemmed can be reached at mahmedseid89[at]