Fearing 3-Way Arms Race, U.S. Seeks Nuclear Talks With Russia and China

6 minute read

In an overture designed to reverse years of stalled diplomacy, the Biden Administration sought Friday to rekindle nuclear arms-control negotiations with Russia and China without preconditions.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. wants to establish a framework for nuclear arms reduction before the last remaining arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia expires. The public appeal to Moscow and Beijing comes amid escalating tensions with both nations, marked by the war in Ukraine and a series of public spats with China. Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, both Russia and China have opted to wield their arsenals to coerce neighbors and deter adversaries.

The U.S. is nonetheless willing to engage one-on-one or multilaterally, Sullivan said, stressing the importance of conversation as anxieties rise. “We’re entering a new era, one that demands new strategies and solutions to achieve the goals we’ve always had: prevent an arms race, reduce the risk of misperception and escalation, and most importantly, ensure the safety and security of our people and people around the world from nuclear threats,” Sullivan said Friday at an event held by the Arms Control Association, a Washington advocacy group.

Read more: U.S. Unveils Strategy for Nuclear Threats from China and Russia.

The challenges are stark. Deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow has led to the dissolution of key nuclear treaties that helped maintain strategic stability since the end of World War II. The last remaining pact, known as the New START Treaty, is scheduled to expire in Feb. 2026, and President Vladimir Putin has suspended Russia’s participation. The U.S. and Russia are not currently engaging in meaningful talks. If New START lapses without a follow-on deal, it would be the first time since 1972 that the two leading nuclear nations, who together control 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, were without an agreement governing their strategic stockpiles.

China, meanwhile, has never been part of a nuclear-arms agreement and has shown no signs of reining in its weapons programs. China’s unwillingness to engage with the U.S. has raised questions about the two superpowers’ ability to collaborate on nuclear arms reductions.

Arms control agreement take years to craft before all details are ironed out and agreed upon. “We are under no illusions about the task at hand, of the hard work, and likely the long work, needed to help lay a new, stronger foundation for this era,” Sullivan said in his speech Friday.

Sullivan acknowledged the war in Ukraine posed a hurdle to such negotiations. Russian President Vladimir Putin has continually chosen to rattle his nuclear saber at the U.S. and NATO as they try to pressure him to abandon his unprovoked military campaign.

But Sullivan referenced instances during the Cold War when the two sides identified certain weapons deemed mutually menacing and worked to eliminate the threat. Even at the darkest moments, the U.S. and Soviet Union would discuss restrictions of nuclear arms. “There is a track record of our two countries being capable of engaging in these kinds of discussions in a way that serves our respective national interests and the broader common interest,” he said.

Read More: Putin Suspended the Last Remaining Nuclear Pact With the U.S. Here’s What Happens Now.

For more than a half-century, successive weapons treaties have led to a dramatic drop in the number of warheads across the globe. But in recent years, the diplomatic foundation that has helped preserve a fragile peace for generations is now exhibiting “major cracks,” Sullivan said. Many of the key nuclear treaties that helped maintain strategic stability and security since the end of World War II no longer exist, from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

And even as Sullivan encouraged renewed discussions, there were fresh signs of the rupture between the U.S. and Russia. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department announced it was going to halt information-sharing about its nuclear arms with Russia, a retaliatory move for Moscow’s decision in February to withdraw from New START. Last week, Russia and Belarus signed a formal agreement to deploy Russia’s short-range nuclear weapons inside Belarus for the first time in three decades.

Sullivan said this renewed nuclear brinkmanship was a reason to talk, rather than turn away. “It is in neither of our countries’ interests to embark on an open-ended competition in strategic forces, and we are prepared to stick to the central limits as long as Russia does,” Sullivan said. “Rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.”

While New START has been suspended, there are still elements of the 2010 agreement that are still in effect. The treaty limits the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed heavy bombers and ballistic missiles, which both sides say they will hold to—even after it sunsets in 2026. “Today, as we face new threats, and as we face those cracks in our post-Cold War nuclear foundation, I not only believe that we can find this hope again, I believe that we must,” Sullivan said. “Because when it comes to nuclear risks, what is at stake for our people and for our world is too important too consequential for our shared futures not to.”

Read More: Inside the Race to Arm Ukraine.

Sullivan acknowledged any future agreement would not only be influenced by Russia’s nuclear capabilities but also by China’s growing ambitions. The rising power only has an arsenal of 410 strategic warheads, according to a Federation of American Scientists’ assessment. But the Pentagon estimates China’s stockpile could grow to 1,500 by 2035, as it simultaneously constructs hundreds of new silos capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles, potentially targeting the U.S. and its far-flung nuclear forces.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal will not need to match the combined nuclear forces of both China and Russia, Sullivan said, despite signs that the two nations have increased military collaboration in recent years. The White House believes such a strategy risks a volatile three-way arms race, Sullivan said.

“The United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors in order to successfully deter them,” he said. “We’ve been there. We’ve learned that lesson. Nor does the United States need to deploy ever more dangerous nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. Rather, effective deterrence means that we have a better approach not a ‘more’ approach.”

TIME receives support for nuclear security coverage from the Outrider Foundation. TIME is solely responsible for all content.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com