Arms Control China Defense Policy National Security Nuclear Deterrence Russia United States and Canada
Issue Brief February 4, 2021

Toward trilateral arms control: Options for bringing China into the fold

By Matthew Kroenig and Mark J. Massa



The New START treaty between the United States and Russia was extended for five years—but the future of strategic arms control must be trilateral, involving the United States, Russia, and China.

Following the five-year extension of the New START treaty, the Scowcroft Center’s Matthew Kroenig & Mark J. Massa contend in a newly released issue brief that it is imperative to bring China into the nuclear arms control fold. US nuclear arms control accords with the Soviet Union (and then Russia) are among the greatest diplomatic accomplishments of the Cold War—but those frameworks are on their last legs, as the geopolitical context has changed significantly. This issue brief was informed by a workshop hosted by the Atlantic Council and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Since the turn of the century, Cold War-era arms control agreements have come under pressure. In addition, the rise of China as a great-power competitor to the United States and China’s growing nuclear arsenal makes it increasingly clear that bilateral arms control between the United States and Russia is insufficient. Thus, US diplomacy must work toward trilateral arms control.

Chinese diplomats, noting the relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, have refused to engage in trilateral arms control negotiations to date. This issue brief surveys several proposals for trilateral arms control, considers China’s incentives to join trilateral negotiations, and offers some short-term steps that the United States and its allies can take to facilitate eventual trilateral negotiations.

Proposals for trilateral arms control

  • Unequal treaty that allows higher limits for US and Russian arsenals
  • Nuclear freeze in which all three states freeze at current levels
  • US-Russian reductions for a China freeze
  • Equal treaty that sets forth a single cap for all three parties
  • Fissile material cutoff
  • Intermediate-range treaty

China’s incentives to join

  • Limits on US and Russian intermediate-range missiles
  • Limits on US and Russian nonnuclear strategic systems
  • US acknowledgment of mutual vulnerability with China
  • Status as a great power
  • Avoiding an arms race

Short-term steps

  • Continue US-Russian bilateral arms control negotiations
  • Chinese participation in US-Russian verification visits
  • Trilateral dialogue on strategic stability
  • US allies and partners request that China begin negotiations
  • Trilateral confidence-building measures, like a ballistic missile launch notification agreement
  • Continue US nuclear modernization to negotiate from a position of strength

No one trilateral framework on its own is likely to be simultaneously acceptable to the United States, Russia, and China. Instead, negotiators will need to judiciously build on a framework with side deals and incentives to bridge conflicting interests.

Matthew Kroenig & Mark J. Massa

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