The USA and Russia are set to meet in Austria this week to discuss nuclear arms reductions. While President Donald Trump is sending his Special Presidential Envoy Marshall Billingslea, the Kremlin is sending its Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. The details were announced by the US State Department in Washington.

What Will be the Focus of the Talks?

The talks are scheduled to focus on topics that revolve around “the future of weapons control” and are considered highly relevant to the current New START agreement which expires in February 2021. China, who had also been invited to the talks in Austria, will not participate.

Beijing has repeatedly rejected Trump’s offer to talk about global weapons control. It claims the communist state’s nuclear arsenal is purely defensive and hence not a threat. Bejing has thus stated that it is not inclined to “be pulled” in “participating in so-called tripartite arms control talks with the United States and Russia,” according to remarks from China’s State Department spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday. Moreover, the US has already withdrawn from several other agreements and, regarding China, Washington has only sought to distract from its own commitments, Chunying continued.

How Strong is China’s Nuclear Program?

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s arsenal of nuclear warheads currently stands at approximately 300. The latter puts Beijing in third place as a nuclear power behind the United States and Russia. Bringing the Chinese to the negotiating table is thus essential, especially as Beijing is currently expanding and diversifying the scope and composition of its nuclear arsenal. An emerging superpower not inclined to engage in arms reduction treaties, and impervious to any form of control mechanisms is a worrisome burden for the Western world and the East Asian region.

Moreover, China has not only been experiencing a historically unprecedented economic rise but has openly declared its superpower ambitions. Combine the latter with an increasingly authoritarian-nationalist course under President Xi Jinping — as well as the continuously intensifying conflicts with the West on technology and trade — and any political realist would be alarmed.

Russia’s Perspective

Russia, on the other hand, has been pressing for a new edition of the agreement with the USA – at least officially. It would be correct and logical to pursue a new agreement, Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov stated on Saturday. However Ryabkov added that before committing Russia was not willing to come to an agreement at any cost. Russia has previously warned about an uncontrollable nuclear arms race if the agreement is not extended.

However, with New START, which provides for the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the USA to be reduced to 800 delivery systems each and 1,550 operational nuclear warheads, expiring on February 5, 2021, time has become of the essence. And if the history of diplomacy has taught the world anything, it is that a treaty of this magnitude takes time to fully agree upon.

The INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between Russia and the United States for instance, of which the US opted out in 2019, was first discussed during the superpowers in 1980. It took seven years before President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev finally signed the agreement in December of 1987. Significant progress was made in the period of Glasnost and after the end of the Cold War. Shortly before the end of the Cold War, there were around 70,000 nuclear warheads in the world, almost all of which were American and Soviet-owned.

Nowadays, the US and Russia only have around 6,500 nuclear warheads each, according to SIPRI. However, these 13,000 warheads still account for more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal.

Russia and US Have a Long Way to Go

It makes the United States and Russia the two key nations when it comes to nuclear disarmament. However, even if the two managed to find their way back together after difficult years, it would only be a small step. In the current arms race, the United States is no longer only facing Russia, but China also.

For an earnest strategy towards arms control talks to materialize, Washington needs to persuade China to participate. However, if an amicable approach is inconceivable, China needs to be compelled via economic coercion. Stopping Beijing from obtaining more nuclear weapons ought to be the US’s primary agenda at this time. Disarmament talks with China will be even more complicated once the communist regime has become a nuclear primus inter pares — preserving New START with Russia notwithstanding.