WASHINGTONâ€•U.S. President Donald Trump was optimistic on Tuesday about negotiations with Russia and China on a new nuclear weapons treaty, but State Department officials painted a murkier picture in testimony to skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The conflicting accounts came as arms control advocates and some lawmakers worry that the Trump administration could let the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expire in 2021, leaving no limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
With time is running out for Trump to achieve its ambitious goals of a new three-way agreement with both Russia and China with new limits on Russiaâ€™s shorter-range â€œtacticalâ€ nukes, lawmakers told administration officials that lack of progress is no reason to let New START expire.
â€œI think what we donâ€™t want to see is China used as an excuse to blow up the existing or potential extension of an agreement with Russia, that contributes to international security and, of course, in the nuclear realm, thatâ€™s important to our survival,â€ Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told State Department officials Tuesday during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Russia.
Though the treaty, which limits the number of strategic weapons, has been in doubt since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty this year, Trump said at NATOâ€™s London meeting that his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese officials on nuclear arms control had gone well.
â€œWith respect to nuclear weapons, Iâ€™ve spoken with President Putin, and Iâ€™ve communicated with him. He very much, and so do we, want to work out a treaty of some kind on nuclear that will probably include China at some point, and [France] by the way, but it will include China and some other countries,â€ Trump said.
Top Chinese officials have made clear previously that China would not participate in trilateral talks, but Trump on Tuesday said that when he raised the issue with Chinese officials during separate trade negotiations, â€œthey were extremely excited about getting involved … So some very good things can happen with respect to that.â€
Sign up for our Early Bird Brief Get the defense industry’s most comprehensive news and information straight to your inbox
Enter a valid email address (please select a country) United States United Kingdom Afghanistan Albania Algeria American Samoa Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, The Democratic Republic of The Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote D’ivoire Croatia Cuba Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guam Guatemala Guinea Guinea-bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and Mcdonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hong Kong Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Marshall Islands Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Micronesia, Federated States of Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands Netherlands Antilles New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Northern Mariana Islands Norway Oman Pakistan Palau Palestinian Territory, Occupied Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Puerto Rico Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Helena Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and The Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia and Montenegro Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and The South Sandwich Islands Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan, Province of China Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States United States Minor Outlying Islands Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela Viet Nam Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, U.S. Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe
Thanks for signing up!
By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Early Bird Brief.
While the U.S. argued that Russia had cheated on the INF Treatyâ€•which Russia deniedâ€•the U.S. position is that Russia is in compliance with New START, which restricts each country to a total of 1,550 warheads deployed on bombers, submarines and in underground silos.
There is an option to extend the treaty for up to five years, should the U.S. and Russia agree, but the Trump administration has not committed to do so.
Proposed bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate would express a sense of Congress that the U.S. should extend the treaty so long as Russia is in compliance, though neither has been taken up in committee.
At the Russia hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Fordâ€™s responses to skeptical lawmakers suggested the administrationâ€™s efforts had not made significant headway, even as he warned Russia and China were expanding their nuclear arsenals.
The State Department has thus far convened teams of experts on possible New START extension and other issues, Ford said in written testimony. He made no mention of any dedicated negotiation strategy or team.
â€œWe are hard at work on these issues, and hope to have more to say about this soon,â€ Ford said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, opposed New START before it was ratified 2010 and said recently that it should be allowed to lapse under current circumstances. After Tuesdayâ€™s hearing, he described himself as â€œvery cautious and skepticalâ€ about the administrationâ€™s process, and he stopped short of saying it was moving forward.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t characterize it as that at this point. Iâ€™m hopeful that will happen. I donâ€™t think weâ€™re there yet,â€ Risch said.
In one key exchange during the hearing with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., Ford said there had been two engagements with Russia on arms control broadly since the start of the Trump administration but no date yet for a third dialogue.
Is there enough time for the administration to meet its goals before the treaty lapses in 15 months, Young asked. Ford suggested the treaty could be renewed â€œvery quickly,â€ for a period of less than five years. But the â€œthree-way dynamicsâ€ associated with adding China would take more study, he said.
â€œWe have conceptual templates from the Cold War that are bilateral, and those donâ€™t make sense in an at least trilateral world,â€ Ford said.
Chinaâ€™s nuclear arsenal is thought to be modest compared with the American and Russian arsenals. Would a new treaty have China grow to meet America, have the U.S. shrink to meet China, or can China can be locked into differential numbers with the U.S, Merkely asked pointedly.
â€œThose kinds of questions are just the kind of thing we need to be and should be talking about with our Russian and Chinese counterparts,â€ Ford said, adding that both countries need to come to the table.
Merkley fired back: â€œOK, but you havenâ€™t engaged in those serious conversations yet, and I know from past arms control negotiations that it can take many years to work out the details when there are actually fairly uniform relationships between two powersâ€•and this is not a uniform relationship.
Along similar lines, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., worried the administration would let the treaty lapse and sacrifice the on-site inspections of deployed and non-deployed strategic systems that New START provides.
â€œMy concern is if we mishandle this, we could wind up with a new nuclear arms race that could cost us trillions of unnecessary dollars because we missed the opportunity for a negotiated agreement first with the Russians,â€ Markey said. â€œIf we donâ€™t take that opportunity, I think we will wind up with a deficit that is just ballooning.â€