The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) which is the last treaty to address strategic arms control is set to expire in February this year. The Trump administration has been adamant that any extension in it should include China. This change in the US’ arms control strategy seems to be more consistent with a shift in its threat spectrum vis-à-vis China. Policymakers in Beijing believe that the U.S policy is driven to contain China and compete more freely without the constraints of an arms control regime. U.S withdrew from another arms control agreement (INF Treaty) on the pretext of alleged Russian violations. However, multiple analysts have observed that that the US’ exit from the INF treaty was least determined by the Russian violations. In fact, it appeared to be was more inclined towards the scope of the treaty not serving the US’ interests against China. This shift in U.S policy to engage China to become part of an arms control regime would have far-reaching implications, for the future of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime in general and the strategic stability of the South Asian region in particular.
South Asia is perhaps the most peculiar region from a strategic point of view. There have been three Indo-Pak wars and a Sino-Indian war in the last 70 years. All three key regional players possess nuclear weapons now. Add to that the growing conflict between China and India as the U.S and India develop a strategic partnership to contain China. There are two primary hypotheses. First, the US manages to engage China and agree on an arms control agreement. This would likely put China in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis India since there would be no constraint by any arms control regime for India. Second, free from the constraints of an arms control regime, the U.S could better overcome the Chinese strategic modernization challenge. In that case, an arms race between the U.S and China would more likely become inevitable. Nonetheless, both of these scenarios would likely have a massive impact on the strategic stability of South Asia.
What can be the purpose behind the US’ push to get China involved in a strategic arms control agreement when the Chinese nuclear arsenal stands at 300 operational warheads as compared to 4000 active warheads maintained by the US? In this regard, multiple factors are driving the US’ policy to involve China in a new strategic nuclear arms control regime. First and foremost is the pace at which China is bridging the gap in comparative military power with the US. In recent years, China has considerably modernized its conventional and unconventional military capabilities along with huge investments in outer space and cyberspace. There seems to be a consensus among analysts that China has been the beneficiary of the New START and INF Treaty. Both of these arms control agreements imposed restrictions and limitations on the US’ strategic conduct, which brings us to our second reason. In the last three decades, China is the only signatory of the NPT to increase its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, there still exists ambiguity regarding the future trajectory of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. In Particular, China now has an advantage with intermediate-range missile systems as the US was barred from their development while being a party to the INF treaty. Apart from this, China now seems to be more willing to leverage growing economic and military power to achieve its strategic and foreign policy goals. The US is more or less concerned with this very important aspect as well.
The Nuclear Crisis Group has identified four major flashpoints where the risks of a nuclear conflict are extraordinarily high. South Asia is among those four flashpoints and perhaps the most volatile one. Pakistan, China, and India have disputed territorial claims. There have been three Indo-Pak wars and a Sino-Indian war and now all three possess nuclear weapons. Pakistan maintains a very principled and calculated nuclear posture of full-spectrum deterrence in-line with the broader credible minimum deterrence vis-à-vis India. This further implies that Pakistan’s nuclear capability is defensive in principle. Furthermore, Pakistan has no interest in disturbing broader regional or international strategic stability. However, in recent years some major developments in Sino-Indian relations would likely impact the strategic stability in the South Asian region. For instance, India is modernizing its conventional military capabilities and strategic capabilities at a rapid pace. In addition to this, the enhanced Indo-U.S strategic partnership creates a contentious regional strategic environment which would ultimately have implications for Pakistan.
The Sino-U.S relations cannot be considered as positive by any measure of standard. As of now, the Indo-U.S strategic partnership is based on strengthening Indian capabilities to serve as a bulwark against China. The US and India have signed four defense agreements to date; the latest one BECA was signed in October of 2020. The Indian defense modernization drive coupled with other US initiatives to counter China would further add to the volatility of the region. In this scenario, any attempt to engage China to become part of a new arms control treaty while its regional adversary indulges in arms built up and defense modernization is bound to create friction in the already fickle strategic stability of South Asia.
Simply put how it will be possible for the U.S to convince China to become a party to a strategic arms control agreement while India continues to develop its nuclear arsenal without the watchful eye of the strategic arms control regime. India is not even part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Without addressing the threat emerging from India, the U.S won’t be able to satisfy Chinese insecurity vis-à-vis India. Will India be forced to become a party to NPT or even an arms control regime? If India is brought in NPT, what would be the prospects for Pakistan? That’s the thing, any plan to include China into a bilateral or multilateral strategic arms control regime will have to carefully manage the quagmire that is the South Asian strategic stability.
*The writer is working as a Senior Research Fellow/ Editor at the Strategic Vision Institute.