The United States is unlikely to extend the New START arms treaty with Russia by next year’s deadline unless China is also part of the deal, the Trump administration’s new presidential envoy for arms control said.
Marshall Billingslea, a veteran national official appointed to the State Department post last month, said in an exclusive interview that before Moscow begins to think about any kind of extension of the 10-year-old nuclear arms limitation treaty, Russia must “bring the Chinese to the negotiating table” as well.
“One main failing of New START — among the many problems with it — is that it does not include the Chinese,” Mr. Billingslea said in a wide-ranging interview shortly after assuming his post.
“New START is an issue that the Russians are seized upon,” he said. “It does nothing for the United States with respect to our concerns regarding China, and it does nothing for the United States with respect to our concerns regarding what Russia has been doing, which are a series of destabilizing activities outside of — and not constrained by — the treaty.”
China’s new nuclear systems, including shorter-range missiles, should be a concern of the Russians, the U.S. envoy said.
“Clearly what China is doing is probably just as oriented towards them as it is to us, and the Russians should recognize that,” he said.
Overall, however, Mr. Billingslea said the United States is not interested in “arms control for arms control’s sake,” a criticism leveled at many policymakers and advocates of treaties and negotiations. New START contains “many glaring deficiencies,” and President Trump is not interested in perpetuating the flawed treaty approved by his predecessor.
“The Obama administration negotiated a very weak verification regime,” he said. “It really has very little of what the original START treaty contained and has significant loopholes in the way verification is physically conducted, which the Russians have been exploiting. So those behaviors also have to stop.”
Chinese government officials have repeatedly said Beijing has no interest in joining three-way talks on an expanded New START deal because their arsenal is far smaller than those of the U.S. and Russia.
“China opposes any country talking out of turn about China on the issue of arms control, and will not take part in any trilateral negotiations on a nuclear disarmament agreement,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing in Beijing this week.
Chinese officials also believe talks will require disclosing information about nuclear forces that will undermine its deterrence. The number of Chinese warheads is not known because of Chinese military secrecy, but is estimated to be at least 250 strategic warheads and an undisclosed number of smaller warheads.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed extending the New START between the U.S. and Russia for another five years, a move that could be made without congressional approval under the treaty. Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump discussed the standoff over New START in a direct phone call Thursday that also dealt with the coronavirus crisis.
During the call, Mr. Trump “reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” the White House said in a statement.
Russian officials say an unconditional five-year extension would give both sides more time to discuss a multilateral deal involving China, but longtime Putin aide Dmitry Medvedev recently wrote for the Tass news agency that “the United States does not seek, contrary to what was seen 10 years ago, to engage in a serious, honest and professional dialogue.”
Asked about Beijing’s refusal to join the talks, Mr. Billingslea said that if China wants to be a great power as its leaders keep saying, they should behave like one and join the arms talks.
“That involves coming to negotiating table and sitting down and beginning the process to provide more assurance, more openness, more transparency regarding their plans and intentions, and what their actual capabilities are to reassure the United States,” he said.
Chinese behavior is not transparent or open and does not instill confidence, he added.
Since taking up the post, Mr. Billingslea has been conducting a review of U.S. strategic capabilities and plans for nuclear forces modernization. He has also studied what he termed the “very concerning, unconstrained and secretive nuclear buildups” undertaken by Moscow and Beijing.
Mr. Billingslea comes to the arms control post with lengthy experience in government, most recently as a point person at the Treasury Department for international relations, sanctions and other punitive measures that have been key features of the Trump administration’s policies toward adversaries and rogue states.
A new U.S. arms strategy is nearing completion and, once finished, “I will be willing be to engage the Russians to listen to their views and understand why they are so desperate for the extension of the New START treaty,” he said.
Asked if Mr. Trump has decided whether to extend the treaty, Mr. Billingslea said, “We want to understand why the Russians are so desperate for extension, and we want the Russians to explain to us why this is in our interest to do it.”
In preparation for his new post, Mr. Billingslea in recent weeks held extensive meetings with U.S. allies and friendly states, focusing in particular on China.
The American approach to arms control will be “a trilateral solution that involves the Chinese and requires them to be more open and more transparent regarding the very concerning activities in which they are engaged,” he said.
Those, he said, include increasing activities at the nuclear test site at Lop Nur, changes in China’s military nuclear posture and the “significant expansion in their nuclear arsenal.”
“They have a lot of questions that they need to answer,” he said.
Russia has been engaged in “highly concerning” and potentially treaty-violating activities at its Novaya Zemlya nuclear test site, Mr. Billingslea added. The activities appear to run counter to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Critics say China has been engaged in an extensive expansion of strategic nuclear forces that remains cloaked in secretary by the ruling Communist Party and the military. The weapons include at least 10 types of missiles, from long-range to short-range ballistic and cruise missiles. China also is close to deploying ultra-high-speed hypersonic missiles capable of striking U.S. targets with maneuvering warheads in less than 30 minutes.
New ballistic missile submarines also are being deployed, and Chinese state media recently announced that a new strategic bomber, the H-20, will be launched this year.
Verifying a deal
Mr. Billingslea said a new arms agreement with the United States, China and Russia must be binding and contain verifiable and enforceable provisions.
“This is crucial because we’re talking about two countries with abysmal track records in terms of treaty compliance,” he said. “Russia has violated nearly every single agreement we’ve ever had with them — and the Chinese stand in violation a number of agreements that they’ve also signed.”
Asked about developing trust in arms control, Mr. Billingslea said, “I don’t think it’s really possible to think we can trust the Chinese at this stage, particularly given how they have behaved in the context of the [COVID-19 coronavirus] outbreak.
“That gives us very little reason to place stock in anything they tell us,” he said.
Any agreement with the Chinese would require an intrusive series of verification measures, such as on-site inspection, short-notice inspections and other procedures.
For any negotiations in Moscow, a major problem is Mr. Putin’s five new strategic weapons systems, two of which U.S. officials contend should be constrained under the existing New START treaty. The agreement limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads.
The two systems covered by the treaty are the new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile and the Avangard hypersonic missile stage, a maneuvering nuclear or conventional warhead delivery system.
Three other new weapons include a new air-launched ICBM called Kinzhal; and the Burevestnik, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped subsonic cruise missile. That new missile blew up during a test in August, killing several Russian arms developers and spreading radiation in the White Sea.
The last new strategic weapon is a drone submarine armed with a large nuclear warhead capable of blowing up ports.
Mr. Billingslea said Russia is being hit hard economically by the coronavirus outbreak and the collapse of the oil market, and spending more on weapons would be like “dumping money down a sinkhole.”
“That’s money they frankly don’t have,” he added, “with their economy in shambles with the virus outbreak there but also given the fact that their entire budgeting process depends upon a high price of oil, which they don’t have and which they are not going to have for the foreseeable future.”
Russia’s economic difficulties put the United States in a strong negotiating position, he said.
“We are just not going to concede anything to include or exclude those systems” in a new or extended agreement, Mr. Billingslea said. “They should simply wrap those [five new] programs up and discard them,” he said.
Moscow also is building up “an unconstrained warhead stockpile” outside the treaty, Mr. Billingslea said, citing its large arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons, and has shifted its nuclear doctrine to make use of nuclear arms in a conflict more usable.
“The whole point of a treaty like New START is to build confidence,” Mr. Billingslea said. “None of this instills confidence, which has been badly shaken by their significant treaty violations and, frankly, their malign activities around the globe.”
The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty based on Moscow’s deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile that U.S. officials said was banned by the treaty. In response, the United States is modifying some nuclear warheads for lower-yield nuclear arms and is planning to deploy intermediate-range missiles.
Mr. Billingslea has not held talks yet with the Russians but noted that Moscow is keen to begin New START extension negotiations.
China’s nuclear buildup will be a topic of discussion with Moscow officials, and Mr. Billingslea reiterated that it is in Russia’s interest to persuade Beijing to join arms talks.
Despite its smaller stockpile, China’s recent deployment of multiple warhead missiles has raised concerns in the West that its arsenal is rapidly expanding. The Defense Intelligence Agency announced last year that China is on a path to doubling its warhead stockpile in the coming years.
The Trump template
Mr. Billingslea said any arms agreement must fit Mr. Trump’s agenda of negotiating good deals that are clearly in U.S. interests.
“A good deal in the context of arms control is a deal that has two key parts,” he said. “The first is that it needs to enable us to avoid having to spend enormous sums of money because it imposes meaningful restrictions on other countries like Russia and China.”
Second, the United States has to be satisfied that the other parties will abide by the terms of the accord. “And if they don’t abide by it, that there are serious consequences that result,” he said.
Asked about comments from a critic in the Arms Control Association, an arms control advocacy group, that Mr. Billingslea will seek to coerce partners rather than negotiate, Mr. Billingslea said: “A negotiation is, of course, a two-way or a three-way street, depending on the topic. … If they mean by coercive that I am not going to be railroaded by the Russians or Chinese and that I will stand up for U.S. interests and the interests of our NATO and our Asian allies, then absolutely that’s the case.”
For arms control advocates who say Russia will accelerate its buildup without a New START extension, Mr. Billingslea said, “I’m not sure they aren’t doing that already, at least with their unconstrained nuclear stockpile.”
He also noted that Moscow has limited resources for a faster nuclear buildup and will be unable to accelerate its programs.
“In my case, you’re talking to someone who has for the past three years very systematically examined the workings of adversarial economies and understands how to use financial tools to support U.S. national security,” Mr. Billingslea said.