Arms Control and Great-Power Politics

November 4, 2020

What should the United States do, if anything, about the growing alignment between China and Russia? For some, the Sino-Russian convergence is inevitable, durable, and any American attempt to drive a wedge between the two Eurasian powers is folly. Others think that driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow is the key to preventing a hostile, anti-American coalition from dominating the Eurasian landmass.

The administration of President Donald Trump seems to consider arms control — specifically, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) — a useful tool to frustrate ties between China and Russia. That linkage to high politics was conveyed in a speech on Feb. 11 by the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, Christopher Ford. As Ford explained, the purpose of strategic arms control is not just to make further “radical cuts in nuclear arsenals,” but also to improve America’s geopolitical position. Ford’s speech raises an interesting question: beyond the traditional foci of arms limits — to preserve advantage, promote stability, build confidence, and cut costs — how might the United States try to use the New START process to otherwise manage the growing Sino-Russian alignment?



At the time of Ford’s speech, Washington was negotiating the extension of New START with Moscow and demanding that Beijing join in the next iteration of the treaty. Its insistence on China’s joining New START appears to be a nonstarter, for China possesses far fewer numbers of nuclear warheads compared to the United States and Russia, even counting Beijing’s nuclear modernization plan for this decade. Experts have warned that the demise of New START could herald the beginning of a new U.S.-Russian arms race, which is certainly not in the American national interest. This is not the first time that the Trump administration has let an arms control treaty with Russia risk collapse because of China. In August 2019, the administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty partly due to China, despite apparent negative consequences. Responding to the withdrawal, the administration expressed its wish to include China in future arms control agreements.

Clearly, the logic of arms limitation cannot explain the U.S. policy. Its arms control agenda must be aimed at something beyond limiting the number of warheads, as Ford suggested. While some might see this as nothing more than the intent to ditch limits altogether and “win” an uncontrolled arms race, there is likely more at work. At a time when Washington is concerned about a Sino-Russian alignment and debating how address it, strategic arms control provides a potential means to do so.

The Cold War offers two notable examples in which the United States and the Soviet Union used arms controls as a means to drive a wedge between opposing powers, which capture two ways in which the United States might use New START to manage its relations with China and Russia. The John F. Kennedy administration employed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty — which banned all nuclear tests except those underground — to constrain China’s fledgling nuclear program, which had become a source of tension between China and the Soviet Union. This had the added benefit of exacerbating the Sino-Soviet split. Almost a decade later, Moscow relied on the  first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) to keep the United States and China apart by improving relations with Washington in order to lower its perception of the Soviet threats, and to widen American and Chinese differences over their respective strategies toward the Kremlin. The historical record suggests that the test ban did exacerbate the Sino-Soviet split beyond repair, while SALT I encumbered the strategic convergence between the United States and China wrought by normalization.

Washington’s position on whether the next New START will be trilateral or bilateral has significant implications for the trend in great-power politics and especially the partnership between Beijing and Moscow. The United States can try to keep China and Russia apart by using arms control to foster cooperation with Moscow at the expense of Beijing, or to exacerbate China and Russia’s conflicting interests over their respective nuclear arsenals by insisting on a three-way agreement. Which approach is better? In our view, it is the one that responds to the context and trajectory of Sino-Russian alignment. The test ban treaty accelerated a Sino-Soviet split that was already underway. SALT I, by contrast, hampered a growing U.S.-Chinese convergence. In the current context, where Russia and China are moving closer together in response to a shared U.S. threat, a SALT-like approach will be more likely to succeed and less likely to backfire. Hence, the United States should extend New START to stave off the growing Sino-Russian alignment.

Exacerbating Adversaries’ Differences

During the Cold War, the United States used arms control negotiations to exploit differences between China and the Soviet Union. This strategy worked because Washington capitalized on a disintegrating Sino-Soviet alliance. If the Sino-Soviet alliance had been cohesive, there would be few differences for Washington to exploit in the first place. President Kennedy was aware of the growing Sino-Soviet split early in his term. In 1961, he understood that the Soviet Union would be uneasy with growing Chinese power in the communist bloc and would support an arms control agreement with Washington to rein in Beijing’s nuclear programs. The United States expected that just the “mere fact” of a bilateral summit would exacerbate the Sino-Soviet relations. During the 1961 Vienna summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy emphasized the common U.S. and Soviet interests in denying China an atomic capability. Khrushchev did not at first embrace the invitation to work with the United States against a communist country. Kennedy speculated that Khrushchev’s hesitance was due to Chinese pressure. From 1961 to mid-1962, Sino-Soviet relations were in a small détente, for China needed time to recover from the Great Leap Forward and Khrushchev wanted to preserve communist unity.

The Kennedy administration nevertheless persisted. After the Vienna summit, it came forward with the framework for a test ban, in which the United States would limit the West German nuclear program in exchange for Soviet help to restrain China’s nuclear ambitions. The United States calculated that U.S-Soviet cooperation via the test ban would burst open the Sino-Soviet split. Such a strategy fit with Khrushchev’s desire to improve relations with the West under “peaceful coexistence” to discredit China’s criticism of him backing down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The White House considered various ways to push the Kremlin to try to get China to “participate” or comply with a test ban. It applied high-level diplomatic pressure to this end, with Kennedy suggesting to Soviet officials that from the U.S. perspective, a treaty that did not check Chinese proliferation would lack value. Although the Kennedy administration recognized that Moscow did not have the leverage to force China to abandon its nuclear program, it carried on with the test ban negotiations that had, as a CIA report in July 1963 put it, the virtuous “by-product” of exacerbating the Sino-Soviet rupture. From early 1963, Kennedy officials closely followed the developments of the Sino-Soviet split and their potential to exploit and exacerbate it via test ban negotiations. As the U.S. Limited Test Ban Treaty negotiator William Foster testified to the Senate in May 1963, the treaty would combine U.S. and Soviet efforts to halt China’s nuclear development. Even if China did not join it, the test ban would “have a divisive effect on Sino-Soviet relations.”

Administration officials believed that apart from the technical dispute over inspections, the “major factor” preventing improved East-West relations and a test ban deal in early 1963 was “Moscow’s preoccupation with the Chinese Communist problem.” The Soviet premier did not want to be seen as responsible for the collapse of Sino-Soviet relations due to his outreach to the West. By early 1963, scientific progress in the means to seismically detect underground testing allowed the United States to avoid having to send inspectors to the Soviet Union. This improvement rendered prior roadblocks over in-country verification irrelevant. The president also gave a commencement speech at American University in June 1963 in support of the nuclear ban treaty. Beijing followed the test ban negotiations closely and was upset at the growing U.S.-Soviet détente. During one of the meetings between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, which were held between July 5 and 20 in Moscow, Deng Xiaoping accused the Soviet Union and the United States of using the test ban to limit China’s nuclear choices.

China’s outburst caught Khrushchev by surprise and he decided to move forward with the test ban. Moreover, Moscow would try to isolate China internationally by getting as many countries to join the test ban as possible. Rallying global opinion against Beijing helped Khrushchev maintain Soviet leadership of the communist bloc and blame the Sino-Soviet split on Beijing. The United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty on Aug. 5, 1963. The Soviet Union used the occasion to condemn China’s refusal to join the treaty and threatened to expel China from the communist movement while Beijing was preparing to split the movement in two. In an assessment after the test ban treaty was signed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that although the treaty lacked some technical merits, it would help exacerbate the split. Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued that the test ban would contribute to the split and bring about favorable developments in the U.S.-Soviet relations. The United States thus helped to catalyze the ongoing Sino-Soviet split by elevating Chinese and Soviet differences over China’s nuclear program via the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

There is an obvious relevance of this episode to today’s challenge. In the Cold War, China’s nuclear ambitions threatened U.S. and Soviet security. China’s latest plan to expand its nuclear forces will likewise be a thorny issue in the Sino-Russian relationship. The United States might elevate its salience by emphasizing the dangers that China’s nuclear buildup — and refusal to participate in a New START — will pose to Russia. However, unlike during talks over the test ban, where Sino-Soviet relations were disintegrating, the Sino-Russian relations today are converging. This is a crucial difference. While the United States might point to China’s nuclear threat to justify not extending New START, cutting the last major plank of U.S.-Russian security cooperation might backfire. It will drive Russia further into China’s corner and confirm their perception of the United States as a common adversary. In short, such an attempt to exacerbate their differences will reinforce the commonality that increasingly drives their alignment.

Going on a Peace Offensive

The Soviet Union drew upon a different playbook to drive a wedge between the United States and China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although primary sources from the Soviet side are scarce, documents from the U.S. side of SALT I indicate a conscious Soviet attempt to use arms control to dilute an anti-Soviet Sino-American rapprochement. The Kremlin thus accommodated U.S. security interests via arms control as a part of détente strategy both to lower U.S. perceptions of Soviet threat and to better focus on China in the Far East. Such accommodation was necessary, since the United States and China were converging. A peace offensive should have, in theory, held off the convergence.

The Richard Nixon administration began the SALT negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1969, the same year as the Sino-Soviet border clash. Before the talks commenced, the U.S. intelligence community noted in August 1969 that the Soviet Union would want to improve relations with the West to better “contain” China after the border dispute. Soviet ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin wrote in his memoir that the Kremlin perceived arms control talks with the United States as a “barometer” of U.S.-Soviet relations. The chief U.S. negotiator at SALT, Gerard Smith, argued that concern about China was one of the key reasons behind the Soviet participation in the talks, even though both Moscow and Washington talked little about Beijing during the negotiations.

Moscow initially was skeptical of Nixon’s attempt to link arms control with the Vietnam War. As such, both the Soviet and the American negotiators expected they would only achieve a modest agreement. However, shortly after the talks started, the Soviets made a proposal on the prevention of an inadvertent nuclear war between the two superpowers caused by a third country that many in the U.S. government considered to carry huge political implications for U.S.-Chinese relations. The Soviets wished to cooperate with the United States to prevent and retaliate against provocative attacks from the third party, which in this case was China. Raymond Garthoff, the lead CIA analyst for the U.S. SALT negotiators, assessed that the Soviets wanted to trigger an anti-China fear in the U.S. strategic community. Helmut Sonnenfeldt, an assistant to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, called the proposal “an alliance against China.” The United States thus rejected the proposal because it carried major implications for growing Sino-American ties.

Washington and Moscow could not make much progress in 1970 due to differences with respect to the scope of offensive weapons, anti-ballistic missiles, and a Berlin agreement. However, when the United States and China engaged in the ping-pong diplomacy in April 1971, the Soviets broke the negotiations deadlock in response to developments in Sino-American relations. Nixon argued that China was the main factor behind the Soviet agreeing to SALT I. After Kissinger’s trip to China in July 1971, Dobrynin asked Kissinger whether the United States was engaged in an “anti-Soviet” maneuver. Vladimir Semyonov, the main Soviet negotiator for SALT I, reacted to Kissinger’s trip by questioning why Washington would want to sacrifice the long-term gains of better Soviet-American relations for short-term gains with China.

In the aftermath of Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, the U.S. intelligence community expected that the Soviets would want to advance the SALT I negotiations with the United States to maintain a favorable position in the triangular relationship. The U.S. intelligence community believed that General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev thought of the summit with Nixon as “an opportunity to demonstrate” that U.S.-Soviet ties would be closer and more substantial than Sino-American ties. Consequently, Brezhnev downplayed Soviet support for North Vietnam as a gesture to the United States. The National Security Council noted that Brezhnev would want to sign many bilateral agreements, including SALT I, to dampen collusion between China and the United States against the Soviet Union.

Nixon and Brezhnev signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in May 1972. In a post-summit assessment, Brezhnev regarded SALT I as a success in preventing the U.S.-Chinese relations from being established on an anti-Soviet foundation and emphasized the importance of continued dialogue with the United States to keep Washington and Beijing apart. The National Security Council concurred with Brezhnev’s point that SALT I reflected Moscow’s intent to use détente with the West to manage the growing China problem. The success of SALT I did sow some discord between the United States and China. Chinese leaders feared that that the United States was using détente to pass the buck of containing the Soviet threat to China. The treaty delayed the normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations, as Washington wanted to better moderate Soviet ambitions. Moscow’s peace offensive via SALT I thus affected great-power relations in large ways that were not tethered to the treaty’s weapons-focused provisions.

Driving a wedge between China and the United States was not the only — or even primary — goal of Soviet arms control policy. Indeed, Moscow was largely motivated by managing the transition to equality with Washington in terms of strategic nuclear forces. However, undercutting Sino-American ties was a factor. Between 1969 and 1972, the Soviet Union consistently conceptualized SALT I as part of an effort to undermine ties between China and the United States. The delay in Sino-American rapprochement that SALT I fostered was due to Brezhnev’s willingness to seek accommodation with the Soviet Union’s lesser threat — United States. By lowering the U.S. perception of the Soviet menace, Moscow diluted the emerging Sino-American alignment, as Washington did not seek a heightened standoff with Moscow. Likewise, because Sino-Russian alignment is today converging, not disintegrating, Washington should pursue accommodation with the lesser threat, Russia, in order to dilute the shared perception of U.S. enmity that pulls Beijing and Moscow together.

New START from Old Lessons

Washington’s New START negotiation stance carries weighty political implications for great-power competition beyond the treaty’s impact on the nuclear balance. On Oct. 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin speculated that an alliance between China and Russia may be possible, even though both countries “in general” have no need for it. Although China and Russia have a common interest in contesting U.S. primacy, their interests diverge when it comes to China’s ambitions in the Russian Far East and Central Asia, its growing nuclear arsenal, and its status as the senior partner in the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership. The United States should capitalize on these differences to try to keep Moscow and Beijing apart, and New START is a pathway through which it may split them.

Although the Trump administration’s insistence on a trilateral approach to New START extension leads the negotiations to a deadlock, such an approach does turn China into an obstacle to the prolongation of a deal that Russia desires, and thus pits some of Russia’s security concerns against China’s. Similar to the context during the nuclear test ban talks, both Washington and Moscow currently share an interest in limiting the projected growth of Beijing’s nuclear power. In a preliminary round of negotiations in Vienna in June 2020, U.S. officials gave their Russian counterparts an intelligence briefing on China’s nuclear programs to convince Moscow to get China on board. In an online press briefing, Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea appealed to Russia that China was discarding its minimal deterrent posture to achieve nuclear parity with the United States and Russia. Billingslea stressed that Washington wanted Moscow to be aware of the Chinese nuclear threat not only to the United States but also to Russia.

There is a major defect, however, in any approach to extending New START that would make Chinese participation a necessary condition for progress. It gives China a veto over U.S.-Russian arms control talks. By obstructing progress on New START, China can deepen the alienation between Moscow and Washington, which will increase Russia’s dependence on China as a strategic partner. It appears that the administration, perhaps having recognized this trap, somewhat modified its stance. During the August round of negotiation in Vienna, Billingslea thus proposed a sequenced approach, in which the United States and Russia negotiate a scheme to extend New START first — one designed to include China at a later stage — in order to put more pressure on China to join. Such pressure can exacerbate Sino-Russian differences in the same way that the Limited Test Ban Treaty did.

Some supporters of a prompt bilateral extension of New START may be channeling a logic similar to that which informed the Soviet peace offensive at the SALT I negotiations — in this instance, to lower Russian perceptions of the American threat and thus dilute the shared animosity that unites Moscow and Beijing against Washington. Apart from the stabilizing benefits of continuing U.S.-Russian strategic arms limits after 2021, an accommodation of Russia’s interests on this dimension may lead to progress in other areas of cooperation that improve the bilateral relationship instead of driving Russia further into China’s embrace. Indeed, from this perspective, prompt, bilateral New START extension should not be treated as a one-off move to preserve a mutually beneficial arrangement. Instead, it should be coupled with other efforts to seek an understanding with Russia, for example, on the limits of NATO expansion, on Russia’s return to Group of 8, or a bargain that lifts sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in return for its withdrawal from further intervention in Ukraine.

Skeptics doubt the value of trying to drive a wedge between Russia and China. For some, the depth of their strategic partnership — which reflects not just convenience but fundamental antagonism toward the United States — will make it impervious to such efforts. For others, there is no need to try: the authoritarian makeup of Russia and China which draws them together will also render the partnership superficial and self-destructing. Either way, the implications are that U.S. policy can little affect their cohesion and there are few downsides to confronting them simultaneously. But it is dangerous to deny the role that confrontational U.S. policies play in driving Russia and China together and to discount the risks of self-isolation in a triangle of great-power competition.

A counterargument to extending New START as a means to drive a wedge between Russia and China can point to the perceived failure of SALT I to prevent the normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1978 and Sino-American cooperation to contain the Soviet Union in the years after. Even though there is no guarantee that extending New START with Russia would prevent an alignment between Beijing and Moscow in the long run, avoiding a costly arms race with the Kremlin and delaying the alignment in the short term is necessary for the United States to better focus its resources on competing with China and to build trust with allies and partners to earn more support in balancing against China. Many Asian states are still skeptical of the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept because they do not want to antagonize Beijing. As such, Washington needs more time to demonstrate to these countries why they can rely on the U.S. vision of security for the Indo-Pacific before it can actually compete with China. With respect to great-power relations, the United States should promptly extend New START with Russia to loosen the ties that bind Moscow and Beijing.


The United States and the Soviet Union both used arms control to, among other objectives, drive a wedge in adversarial coalitions. The Limited Test Ban Treaty exploited Sino-Soviet differences in terms of the nuclear balance, and SALT I emphasized different Chinese and American policies toward the Soviet Union. In both cases, the wedge drivers achieved some limited success. Washington aggravated the Sino-Soviet split beyond repair. Moscow delayed and dampened encirclement by the United States and China for six years, from Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 to the normalization of Sino-American relations in 1978. The success of these wedge strategies turned upon different strategic circumstances. The test ban treaty capitalized on an already disintegrating alliance, while SALT I countervailed anti-Soviet convergence by conciliating the United States on key issues.

The United States should lean forward and extend New START with Russia. Despite the Trump administration’s unpropitious demands, Moscow has sought to avoid the treaty’s collapse. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in a recent interview affirmed that if Joe Biden is elected, Moscow is ready to extend the treaty in the short time period between Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 and the treaty’s expiration date on Feb. 5. This suggests that Russia is still invested in a positive relationship with the United States. Washington should embrace the opportunity to cooperate with Moscow in order to weaken the anti-American bond between China and Russia. The alternative — to insist on a deal-breaking trilateral scheme — will only reinforce the trajectory of Sino-Russian convergence by hardening the position of the United States as the common adversary.

Arms control has been and will continue to be an instrument to manage great-power relations. Even if extension of New START will not turn Russia into an ally in Washington’s efforts to contain China, it may help to do something less dramatic but no less important: prevent or delay a Sino-Russian alignment based on antagonism toward the United States.



Timothy Crawford is associate professor of political science at Boston College and author of the forthcoming The Power to Divide: Wedge Strategies in Great Power Competition (Cornell, 2021).

Khang Vu is a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Boston College and a regular contributor to the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter based in Sydney, Australia.

Image: Richard Nixon Presidential Library