A ‘New INF’ with China? No Talks Yet, US Arms Control Chief Says

U.S. Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson, left, and Director General of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Fu Cong attend a panel discussion after a Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

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U.S. Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson, left, and Director General of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Fu Cong attend a panel discussion after a Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

State Department’s Andrea Thompson: “Right now, the focus is on Russia."

The United States has not opened talks with Beijing about brokering a new arms-control agreement that would include China, as President Trump has suggested might be possible after he pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, with Russia this month, according to the State Department’s top arms control official.

“No talks with China at this point, specifically to the INF,” Undersecretary for Arms Control Andrea Thompson said in an interview. “Russia has six months to get back in compliance. Right now, the focus is on Russia. ”

The United States announced on Feb. 2 that it would suspend its obligations under the 1987 agreement, a landmark treaty that prohibited the United States and Russia from fielding land-based cruise missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,420 miles, or 500 and 5,500 km.

The U.S. has pinned its withdrawal on Russia’s fielding of four battalions of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles, which Trump administration officials say violates the terms of the agreement. But officials have also noted that China — which is not a party to the INF treaty and was not a significant military power when the agreement was struck — has fielded more than 1,000 missiles that would be prohibited under the agreement. Administration and U.S. military officials have suggested a better alternative to the INF would be a new agreement on missile limitations between all three states, or barring that just to out-gun them.

The commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that 95 percent of the ballistic missiles Beijing has developed “would not be be permitted” under INF.

“Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far,” Trump said in his State of the Union address.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also suggested that the INF Treaty could be expanded to include China and other states in possession of intermediate-range missiles. Moscow continues to deny that it was in violation of the agreement. It has also expressed openness to negotiating a new agreement broadened to include other countries.

U.S. officials repeatedly have insisted that the decision to withdraw from the pact was based solely on Russia’s noncompliance — not China’s arsenal. “The INF Treaty is about Russia,” Thompson said during a recent conference call with reporters. Following the formal notification that the U.S. would withdraw from the treaty within six months, Thompson traveled to Beijing for a conference between the five nations bound by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Thompson said at the time that China “didn’t raise the issue” of a joining into a new INF-like treaty.

“I don’t anticipate that they will raise that, again, because their systems wouldn’t meet the INF Treaty. They’ve already exceeded that. So the short answer is no. They didn’t raise that issue,” she said. Any discussion of including China in a new treaty would take place after the six-month window to bring Russia back into compliance has lapsed, she said.  

The Trump administration is broadly reviewing all U.S. arms control obligations, Thompson said: “where they stand, what we’re doing, what the other treaty partners are doing, next steps as necessary.”

She declined to address ongoing speculation that the United States is laying the groundwork to withdraw from the New START Treaty, a 2010 arms reduction agreement with Russia that Trump has lambasted as a “bad deal” in the past. The deal was fully implemented last February and expires in 2021.

“We’ve started discussions on New START but we have two years,” Thompson said.

A senior administration official told reporters earlier this month that the U.S. is “committed to the implementation of the New START treaty, but we have not made any decisions about its extension.”

Thompson told reporters last week that the Defense Department could begin research and development on weapons previously prohibited by the INF, sparking fears of a new arms race in Europe. (Senior administration officials have said that the U.S. is only looking at conventional weapons at this point.) Nonproliferation advocates warn that both sides will now be free to build a new generation of intermediate-range missiles, and maintain that the United States already can sufficiently deter Russia and China without them. Even if Russia wasn’t complying with the agreement, critics argue, Washington’s withdrawal lets Moscow get away with violating an international agreement without any penalty, and that they likely will speed their production of weapons.

Experts have been split over the damage that Trump’s decision will do to the global framework of arms control. Thompson has disputed those criticisms, arguing that the decision strengthens arms control regimes by “holding folks accountable.”

“Folks have asked about arms control,” she said. “We’re not walking away from arms control.”

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