US-Chinese Officials Silent on Possible Arms-Control Talks

November 13, 2018 Updated: November 13, 2018

WASHINGTON—At the U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue held at the State Department on Nov. 9, one key issue that seems not to have been discussed was the Chinese regime’s nuclear buildup.

At the press conference at the conclusion of the dialogue, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, in answering a question about the planned U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), stated, “We did not spend time talking in detail about that issue today,” with no further comment. The U.S. withdrawal is partially tied to the Chinese regime’s nuclear buildup.

The Trump administration announced its intent last month to withdraw from the INF, due to its violation by Russia (since at least 2014) and China’s absence from the pact.

In remarks to reporters on Oct. 20, President Donald Trump laid out the rationale for withdrawing: “Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say, ‘Let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’ But if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable.”

On Oct. 22, Trump criticized the INF treaty for not including China.

The Chinese regime’s state-run media, such as Xinhua and Global Times, as well as media aligned with the regime, such as Hong Kong’s Phoenix News, reacted strongly to Trump’s statements. Many articles repeated the mantra that scrapping the treaty would be opening a “door to hell.”

On Oct. 22, Chinese foreign affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press conference that “it is completely wrong to bring up China when talking about withdrawal from the treaty.” On Oct. 23, she accused the United States of “unreasonably” and “unacceptably” using China as an excuse to end the treaty, and of putting the onus on Beijing.

The INF, signed by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, was intended to reduce tensions in Europe, which, at the time, was divided into communist and non-communist camps. The pact eliminated thousands of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) from the arsenals of both superpowers.

Unbound by the treaty, China has built up its nuclear arsenal. While China claims to possess only a few hundred warheads, international observers estimate that the true size could be in the thousands, putting it on par with the United States and Russia.

Having not addressed the issue of U.S. withdrawal from the INF “in detail,” as Pompeo put it, begs the question of when the United States will raise the issue, as the Nov. 9 meeting was “in preparation for the upcoming meeting between our two leaders at the G20.”

China could face significant exposure of its nuclear arsenal, should the United States press it for entry into an INF-type or other nuclear arms-control agreement. It fields IRBMs that may violate the INF’s provisions.

INF included an inspection and verification regime, though those requirements of the treaty expired in 2001. Any new treaty would quite surely include renewed monitoring and verification rules. In addition to its restrictions on ballistic missiles, INF also bans cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (about 300 to 3,400 miles), across multiple land-based platforms, as well as upon research and development of weapons within its prescribed ranges.

Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Central Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi responded forcefully to U.S. objections to the Chinese regime’s construction and militarization of islands in the South China Sea. These installations complicate arms control, as they provide potential ballistic missile sites or bases of operations for other nuclear platforms.

Nicole Hao contributed to this report.

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