President Donald Trump floated the idea that the United States, China, and Russia may come together to discuss collectively cutting back on weaponry investments.
“I am certain that, at some time in the future, [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping] and I, together with President [Vladimir] Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race,” the president wrote in a Dec. 3 tweet. “The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!”
Trump has made it one of his priorities to increase military spending, convincing Congress to approve $700 billion last fiscal year and $716 billion this one. But he also hinted that his reasons had to do with countering the military buildup of China and Russia.
In March, he said one of his priorities for meeting with Putin was “to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
“We will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have,” he said.
After meeting Putin in Helsinki in July, Trump said, “the reduction of nuclear weapons throughout the world” was “perhaps the most important issue … discussed.”
No concrete agreement, however, came out of the talks.
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
Instead, Trump said he’ll quit the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia. The treaty doesn’t allow participating countries to “possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of between 310 and 3,420 miles or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.
The United States and the Soviet Union destroyed nearly 2,700 missiles by the treaty’s deadline in 1991.
But for five years, the United States has maintained that the Russian 9M729 missile violates the agreement, as its range exceeds 310 miles.
“If they get smart and if others get smart and they say let’s not develop these horrible nuclear weapons, I would be extremely happy with that, but as long as somebody’s violating the agreement, we’re not going to be the only ones to adhere to it,” Trump said in October.
Russia has denied the missile could strike that far. “For our part, we are fully committed to the INF Treaty,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in December.
Ryabkov also accused the United States of violating the treaty by deploying missile defense launchers in Europe, because they can be used to fire offensive missiles too.
However, there’s another problem with the treaty.
“Moscow contends that the treaty unfairly prevents it from possessing weapons that its neighbors, such as China, are developing and fielding,” stated the Arms Control Association.
Russia’s military spending rose 50 percent between 2007 and 2017 to more than $66 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which provides independent evaluations of military spending.
Putin boasted in March about new Russian weapons, including the hypersonic aircraft missile “Kinzhal” (Dagger) capable of “delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers” or over 1,420 miles at 10 times the speed of sound.
The missiles “began their trial service at the airfields of the Southern Military District,” he said, and will be able “to overcome all existing and … prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems.”
Russia, however, has struggled to maintain its military expansion amid economic woes in recent years.
“The defence budget is now around 10 percent lower than its 2015 peak and is expected to be reduced by a further 5 percent next year,” said principal analyst at IHS Markit Craig Caffrey in December.
“Russian military modernization will continue but the cuts are impacting the pace of that process.”
China, on the other hand, shows few signs of slowing. Its military expenditures more than tripled between 2007 and 2017, reaching over $228 billion, according to SIPRI. For 2018, China proposed another 8 percent hike.
Aside from building and militarizing artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, China has been developing a hypersonic missile of its own capable of six times the speed of sound.
“You want to talk about an existential threat? How about China’s hypersonic glide missile, which … could take out an aircraft carrier before you could even blink?” said Doug Wise, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and former CIA paramilitary and operations officer, The New Yorker reported in January. “If the entire Pacific Fleet was at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, that would pose an existential threat.”
A month later, the Director of National Intelligence report (pdf) stated that “Both Russia and China continue to pursue antisatellite … weapons” that “probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years.”
In March, Trump announced the United States will form a sixth military branch—the Space Force.
Trump has been known to seek negotiations from a position of strength. His anticipation of U.S.–China–Russia talks on reducing the arms buildup suggests he’s leaving the door open for a diplomatic solution.
“History teaches us that when you weaken your defenses, you invite aggression,” Trump said during his signing of the Defense spending bill in December. “The best way to prevent conflict is to be prepared, and really be prepared. Only when the good are strong will peace prevail.”