By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos*
President Donald Trump said recently that he is open to meeting with the other heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss arms control and will soon put forward a trilateral arms control proposal with Russia and China. But China continues to express its opposition to trilateral talks and has yet to respond to U.S. overtures to begin a bilateral strategic security dialogue.
At the same time, the U.S. administration continues to deflect questions about its stance on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in 2021.
Trump told reporters February 29 that Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France “all want to now discuss arms control” and that the leaders of those countries will likely discuss the subject at the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
Russian President Vladimir Putin first proposed the idea of a P5 summit earlier this year to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control. “We have discussed this with several of our colleagues and, as far as I know, have received a generally positive response to holding a meeting of the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council,” Putin stated during a late-January trip to Israel.
In a March 5 statement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), President Trump said he “will be proposing a bold new trilateral arms control initiative with Russia and China to help avoid an expensive arms race and instead work together to build a better, safer, and more prosperous future for all.”
Trump said a trilateral approach is needed because “[o]ver the next decade, China seeks to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile while Russia is developing expensive and destabilizing new types of delivery systems.” He first proposed a trilateral approach to arms control nearly a year ago.
Neither the president nor other officials have provided a timeline for when the administration would release a proposal.
Nevertheless, a senior state department official told reporters March 9 that “we’re optimistic that it will be possible to engage both with Russia and with China, and to bring those bilateral engagements forward into a trilateral engagement that will ultimately result in the kind of agreement that President Trump has tasked us with trying to come to.”
“So we are cautiously optimistic, and hope very much to be engaged with both, not just one, of those two parties in the very near future,” the official added.
In an interview with Arms Control Today February 5, Ambassador Jeffrey Eberhardt, special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, said that “a new signed, sealed, delivered agreement” with China is “not possible” by 2021. But he argued that “it is possible to have a negotiation underway or agreed to by then.”
China, however, continues to say that it is not interested in a trilateral approach. “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said March 6.
In addition to pursuing trilateral talks with Russia and China, Christopher Ford, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, invited China in December to begin a bilateral strategic security dialogue.
Director-General of the Department of Arms Control of China’s Foreign Ministry Fu Cong said February 12 that Beijing would answer Ford’s proposal “soon,” but Beijing has yet to do so. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said March 6 that “China is always open to bilateral exchange with the U.S. in the field of strategic security.”
*Kingston Reif is director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, Shannon Bugos is research assistant at the Arms Control Association.