Beijing Rejects Any Involvement in Nuclear Arms Limitation Talks

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 19

Image: PRC representative Geng Shuang speaking at the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly on October 12. In his speech, Geng vowed that the PRC would “never” take part in trilateral nuclear arms control talks with the United States and Russia. (Image source: CGTN, October 13)


Recent years have been contentious in terms of nuclear arms control negotiations between the United States and the Russian Federation. The United States withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February 2019, citing Russian violations of the agreement. In April 2019, U.S. representatives initiated efforts to seek a new arms control agreement with the Russian Federation, reportedly with interest in bringing the PRC into the negotiations for a potential tripartite agreement (China Brief, July 16, 2019). On May 22 of this year, the U.S. Government announced intention to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies (effective November 22) on grounds of alleged Russian violations of that same treaty, the INF treaty, and other commitments (U.S. State Department, July 6).

U.S.-Russia talks have continued throughout 2020, conducted primarily under the framework of the “New START” talks (evoking Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, agreements signed between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia in the early 1990s, and the New START treaty that entered into force in 2011) (Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 4; Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 24). [1] In mid-October, negotiations hit a snag after a Russian proposal to extend New START for a year was rejected by the U.S. side, unless the extension were also to be accompanied by a freeze on the number of nuclear warheads maintained by each country (WSJ, October 16; TASS, October 16).

These controversies have brought renewed attention to U.S.-Russia arms control talks, as well as to the contentious issues between the two countries relating to the future of their nuclear arsenals. They have also brought attention to the fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC), assessed to be the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons power (Arms Control Association, August 2020), has remained carefully aloof from nuclear arms control regimes of the sort negotiated between the United States and Russia. Throughout the summer and autumn of this year, Chinese officials and state media have categorically rejected the prospect of PRC participation in any theoretical trilateral U.S.-Russia-China arms control talks. In their messaging, these sources have asserted both the small and self-defensive nature of the PRC’s nuclear arsenal, and that U.S. calls for Chinese participation represent “blackmail” intended to maintain American strategic hegemony (see discussion below).

U.S. Assessments Regarding Chinese Nuclear Developments, and Calls for China to Engage in Arms Control Negotiations

This year, U.S. Government representatives and official publications have issued statements of concern about China’s expanding and advancing nuclear forces. The 2020 edition of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China noted in particular the expansion of the PRC’s inventory of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), capable of both conventional and nuclear strikes against ground and naval targets. It noted as well the development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) possessing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities, and assessed that “the number of warheads on the PRC’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years.” [2]

Images: Still images from video of a reported DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile test launch conducted at an unidentified location in “northwest China’s desert region” in early 2019. (Image source: CGTN, January 30, 2019)

In mid-October, Marshall Billingslea, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control and a leading figure in the U.S.-Russia New START negotiations, offered both critical comments about Chinese nuclear developments and renewed calls for the PRC to enter into trilateral arms control negotiations. Ambassador Billingslea commented on the PRC’s ongoing nuclear weapons testing at the Lop Nur facility in Xinjiang, and its ambitious program of ballistic missile test launches in 2019-2020. He asserted that China’s absence from arms control frameworks had left it “totally unconstrained for the past three decades,” allowing the construction of between 1000 to 2000 medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles of 13 different types.

Ambassador Billingslea further stated that “China is repeatedly and aggressively expanding the size and scope of [its] nuclear arsenal”—and that, as a result, “binary Cold War era arms control approaches no longer apply… any treaty or agreement that does not account for this is by definition incomplete [and] ineffective.” He also asserted that the PRC, as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (“Non-Proliferation Treaty,” or NPT), was obligated under Article 6 of the treaty to negotiate in good faith for arms limitations to prevent a nuclear arms race—and that China is “perilously close to violating its NPT obligations in this respect” (Heritage, October 13).

The PRC Propaganda Campaign to Support U.S.-Russia Bilateral Arms Control Talks—and to Oppose Any Trilateral Talks Involving China

In the face of U.S. calls for trilateral negotiations, in recent weeks PRC officials and state media have undertaken a concerted effort to head off diplomatic pressure for the PRC to participate in any nuclear arms control talks. Speaking in July, Fu Cong (傅聪), Director-General of the Department of Arms Control at the PRC Foreign Ministry, held a press conference in which he stressed the large gap between U.S. and Chinese nuclear capabilities. Fu rejected the idea of any potential trilateral talks, and asserted that “Hyping up the China factor is nothing but a ploy to divert world attention, and to create a pretext under which the United States could walk away from [New START]… We urge the United States to respond positively to Russia’s call to extend the New START, and on that basis, to further reduce its huge nuclear arsenal” (Xinhua, July 8; PRC Foreign Ministry, July 8).

Image: Fu Cong, Director-General of the PRC Foreign Ministry’s Department of Arms Control, speaking at a press conference on July 8. (Image source: Haokan Shipin, July 9)

Speaking to the Aspen Security Forum in early August, PRC Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai (崔天凯) stated that it was “not yet the right time” for China to take part in any such talks. Cui opined that “China has a very small amount of nuclear weapons [that is] far behind the U.S. and Russia… the United States and Russia have the largest nuclear arsenal[s]… so they should take the lead in international nuclear disarmament” (Xinhua, August 11). In statements made to the United Nations General Assembly on October 12, Geng Shuang (耿爽), the Deputy Permanent Representative of the PRC to the United Nations, reiterated traditional PRC talking points: that China’s nuclear forces were maintained at a minimal level for self-defense, and that China would never engage in a nuclear arms race with any other country. Going further, Geng asserted that:

Given the huge gap between the nuclear arsenals of China and those of the U.S. and the Russian Federation, it is unfair, unreasonable and infeasible to expect China to join in any trilateral arms control negotiation… This is just a trick to shift the focus of the international community. The U.S. intention is to find an excuse to shirk its own special and primary responsibility for nuclear disarmament, and seek a pretext to free its hands and gain absolute military supremacy…China will never participate in such a negotiation and will never accept any coercion or blackmail. (Xinhua, October 13)


The controversy surrounding the PRC’s participation (or lack thereof) in nuclear arms control negotiations is another example of the tensions inherent between Beijing’s legacy messaging—which always emphasizes the limited and self-defensive nature of its strategic nuclear capabilities—and its rapidly growing capabilities, and attendant assertiveness, as a rising military power. As noted by analysts Toshi Yoshihara and Jack Bianchi in 2019, “even as Beijing rhetorically adheres to longstanding principles of restraint, it has in recent years steadily modernized its nuclear arsenal [and] increased the size of the force…Chinese leaders may… adopt changes in nuclear strategy in order to shape the external environment in ways that better reflect Beijing’s perceived newfound status and that accommodate China’s growing power and ambitions” (China Brief, June 26, 2019; China Brief, July 16, 2019).

The PRC will likely continue to resist any calls for nuclear weapons limitations until its strategic forces have achieved parity, or near-parity, with those of the United States and Russia. It is also likely to continue to reject any potential restrictions on its intermediate-range ballistic missile forces, which have dramatically expanded the PLA’s ability to conduct conventional power projection operations in the Indo-Pacific region. In doing so, Beijing’s spokespersons will likely refrain from any criticisms of the PRC’s semi-ally Russia, while characterizing any public calls for trilateral negotiations as a manifestation of U.S. geopolitical hegemony. The size and sophistication of the PRC’s missile arsenal, both conventional and nuclear, will likely continue to advance unimpeded by any international arms control regime.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, feel free to reach out to him at:


[1] See: “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, 1991 and 1993,” U.S. Department of State (undated),; and “New START Treaty,” U.S. Department of State (Oct. 8, 2020),

[2] Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 (U.S. Department of Defense, 2020), p. 55.