In mid April 2020, a report issued by the United States State Department called “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report)” raised concerns that China might be conducting nuclear tests with low yields at its Lop Nur site, in violation of its Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) undertakings.
The U.S. report also claims that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that produced a nuclear yield, underlying the CTBT. Russia and China have rejected the U.S.’s claims. With growing rivalry among major powers, the report harbingers a new global nuclear arms race, which would mark the end of the CTBT that came into being in 1996.
In search of a political diplomacy, it was in March 2020, when Donald Trump recently agreed to a proposal that China should join for a new round of arms control talks, along with four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The goal, according to government officials, is a tripartite agreement among China, Russia, and the United States, to limit nuclear weapons.
In a three-way agreement, it would be unrealistic to presume that Washington or Moscow would keep the same number of weapons as China. It would also be unrealistic to believe that China would accept unequal limits. That’s why China has rejected in participating in any three-way agreement, citing large differences in nuclear weapon levels. But, in the scenario of global arms race, Beijing’s ambitious plans for new enrichment and recycling capacities, capable of producing material for nuclear weapons, in order to achieve parity with United States and Russia, could no longer be undermined.
Currently, there are strategic mysteries surrounding Chinese behaviour, in the global arms race, which include its unclear doctrine for using nuclear weapons, and its rising capacity to make nuclear explosives.
Despite China not having a strike first nuclear policy, it will soon, however, deploy a nuclear triad of strategic land, sea and air launched nuclear system, similar to the United States. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency projects that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile may double by 2030. It is also investing in intercontinental ballistic missile, which may be filled with hypersonic glide vehicles that travel at high speeds on random trajectories, making them difficult to intercept on missile defense systems.
With its enrichment capacity of making an additional fifteen hundred warheads each year, it would enable Beijing to achieve parity with United States in just ten years. In addition to that, China plans to buy another plant from France that would produce enough plutonium for a further sixteen hundred warheads per year. All this signifies that China could be a serious contender in the global arms race. On top of that, China may also join Russia in accelerating the arms race in space, given its ground-based lasers, anti satellite missile, and robot satellite killer operations. As of now, security experts believe that its anti-satellite operations greatly contradict its official no strike first policy.
When Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was drafted in 1987, the world was a small place. As the treaty was withdrawn in 2019, due to Russia’s development of new weapon classes including missiles such as 9M729, and China not being covered in its scope, there is a dire need to address various emerging concerns of threats and national security the United States is facing in a volatile global political environment.
As per reports by the Guardian, the Trump administration may withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, in fall of 2020. The treaty allows for short-notice, unarmed, observation flights over the territory of treaty parties to collect data on military forces and activities.
The New START treaty will also expire soon. That’s why, President Donald Trump is also proposing an extension of New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, an agreement initially signed in Moscow in 2010: it limits USA and Russia to fifteen hundred fifty deployed nuclear warheads, and seven hundred deployed delivery systems. There are talks that under the upcoming treaty extension, Russia’s new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle could be counted along with other Russian nuclear weapons.
Conversely, if New START expires and doesn’t go through, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, for the first time, since 1972. The risk of unrestricted nuclear competition, would lead to even more agitated U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship.
However, the inclusion of hypersonic weapons, in a possible upcoming extension of New START treaty, will raise concerns of ‘invisible arms’, which cannot be intercepted by defence systems. In 2019, China became the first country in the world to publicly announce deployment of hypersonic weapons, when its DF-17 missile featured in the National Day military parade. However, in comparison to Russia’s Avangard, DF-17 is a low tech one, which can travel at a speed of Mach 6.
If tensions were to spike over Taiwan or the South China Sea, for instance, China might be tempted to launch preemptive strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons that could cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean. China’s military sees its hypersonic weapons as an ‘assassins mace’, a folklore term for a weapon that gives an advantage against a better-armed foe.
The U.S., on the other hand, has also resumed hypersonic missile development under Donald Trump, after his predecessor Barack Obama suspended the program, but the U.S. is yet to announce the full-scale development of its own weapons. At the present, its Department of Defense is pouring in more than one billion U.S dollars into hypersonic research. Currently, the Pentagon has nearly a dozen programs tasked with developing and defending against the new breed of weapons. In 2019, the Pentagon awarded two multibillion-dollar hypersonic weapons contracts to Lockheed Martin.
According to news agency Tass, Moscow could also arm its new warships with hypersonic weapons, and retrofit its existing vessels with the missiles. If realised properly, the move could become a game changer in the global arms race. For Russia, it might be a hedge against future U.S prowess, especially at shooting down its ICBMs.
Margaret Kosal, an associate professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology, in the U.S., has different opinions though. She recently said: ‘the hypersonic technology would not become a game changer because evidence suggests the technology would not replace nuclear weapons as the most effective strategic deterrence tool’.
It means hypersonic weapons might increase the cost of war, but none of the three major powers would likely use them as a pre-emptive strike tool, and might continue to enhance their nuclear technology. The countries, associated with making hypersonic weapons, could also work to avert a potential crisis, by agreeing not to arm them with nuclear weapons. As a diplomatic reaction, the hype surrounding hypersonic weapons will also generate enough interest to ensure productive discussions, and increased Track I and Track II diplomatic efforts, both bilaterally and trilaterally
With regards to INF treaty, the United States believes that Russia broke it decades ago, when it deployed multiple ground launched cruise missiles with the ability to strike critical European targets. Russia, on the other hand, insists that U.S. withdrawal of the treaty is a part of a larger ploy to weaken norms surrounding the use of nuclear weapons.
In August 2019, the U.S. test of the country’s first post-INF Treaty missile called BGM-109 Tomahawk, a variant of the BGM-109G Gryphon, had Russia and China rattled, with each nuclear-armed rival, warning that the U.S. was igniting a great power arms race. The U.S. military conducted its first flight test of a conventional ground launched missile banned under I.N.F treaty, two weeks prior to its expiry.
The I.N.F treaty was meant to eliminate the presence of land based nuclear missiles, and medium range arsenals between 500 km to 5,500 km from Europe. The treaty’s expiration, however, enables U.S. to resume development of its own medium range, land based arsenal.
According to Frank Rose, a former assistant U.S. secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance: ‘the INF’s demise is the latest installment in a larger story – and it means the collapse of the U.S.-Russia bilateral strategic stability framework’.
In order words, it is an open invitation for an arms race, which will also enable countries such as Russia to spend money on updating and amplifying its weapons systems. There are already announcements of new Russian weapons including a nuclear torpedo, and a nuclear powered cruise missile.