Under the 2010 New START treaty, the U.S. and Russia agreed to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 by 2018, down from the current 2,200. Obama’s proposal of a further one-third cut would take them to around 1,000.
Yury Ushakov, senior foreign policy advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in Moscow that for the proposal to work, other nuclear-capable countries would have to be involved.
“The situation now is not like in the 1960s and 1970s, when only the United States and the Soviet Union held talks on reducing nuclear arms,” RIA Novosti quoted him as saying. “Now we need to look more broadly and expand the circle of participants in possible contacts on this matter.”
Ushakov did not elaborate, but experts say China is the only one of the original five nuclear powers – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – that is expanding its warhead stockpile.
In rebuffing Obama’s proposal Moscow had plenty more to say, much of it negative. (Deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin said Obama was “openly lying” by proposing further reductions while continuing to develop missile defenses in Europe “to intercept Russia's nuclear potential.” The U.S. has long denied that the missile defense umbrella is aimed at Russia.)
But on the question of the need to take into account other nuclear powers, Russia is not alone in its concerns.
A GOP-offered amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – passed by the U.S. House in a 315-108 vote last week – makes the release of any funding for future nuclear cuts contingent on the administration certifying that the intelligence community has “high confidence judgments” relating to China’s nuclear weapons capability.
This includes its assessments about the “nature, number, location and targetability” of the weapons and delivery systems; its production capacity; and nuclear doctrine.
Commenting on Obama’s proposals Wednesday, Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) policy director Robert Zarate noted that U.S. lawmakers want assurances on U.S. intelligence estimates regarding China’s arsenal, before further nuclear reductions take place.
“The worry is that if the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal keeps dropping, it is conceivable that China someday could rapidly build up its nuclear forces in an attempt to reach game-changing numerical parity with the United States,” Zarate said.
“That’s why it’s long past due for Washington to stop thinking about any future limitations to nuclear arms in bilateral terms with Russia, and start thinking – at the very least – in trilateral terms with Russia and China.”
Beijing is notoriously opaque about its nuclear and broader military programs and expenditure, but U.S. intelligence agencies periodically report estimates of its nuclear arsenal.
The 2013 annual Pentagon report to Congress on China’s military strength puts the number of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), both silo-based and road-mobile, at “approximately 50-75,” but gives no estimates for other systems, including intermediate-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last April, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lieut. Gen. Michael Flynn cited those “approximately 50-75” ICBM estimates and said the continental United States was within range of fewer than 50 of those.
There was more detail in the Pentagon’s 2012 report to Congress. It also cited “50-75” ICBMs but included other estimates too – 5-20 intermediate-range (3,000-5,000 km) ballistic missiles, 75-100 medium-range (1,000-3,000 km) ballistic missiles and 1,000-1,200 short-range (less than 1,000 km) ballistic missiles.
In a 2011 report the Federation of American Scientists estimated a Chinese inventory of approximately 240 nuclear warheads, saying that “China is the only one of five original nuclear weapon states that is increasing its nuclear arsenal.”
That expansion continues, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In its 2013 yearbook SIPRI estimated that China has a total of 250 nuclear warheads, 10 more than its 2012 estimate.
“Alone among the five legally recognized nuclear weapon states, China expanded its nuclear arsenal in 2012,” it said.