In February 2021, the START-3 agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States is going to lapse. The Treaty, as defined by Russian President Putin, is the last stand in the existing arms race restraint system and significantly reduces the risks of a global nuclear conflict.
Russia's stance on the issue is utterly transparent and clear – in compliance with the pledged option to extend the existing agreement for five years without preconditions and premodifications. The need to preserve the Treaty has been repeatedly stated by Vladimir Putin along with his calls on Washington to show prudence and pragmatism.
The US keeps options open on Russia's proposal. At the same time, the White House insists on China's accession to the agreement, the inclusion of new strategic offensive arms types into the Treaty, as well as a new version of the document's certain provisions in the context of changes that have occurred over the ten years after signing it. Realizing that a new agreement may be more likely in this case, which will take more than one year to issue, Moscow offered to discuss all these questions with an eye toward the future, simultaneously extending the current and generally successful agreement. Washington has yet to respond to this proposal.
China has predictably refused to participate in the Russian-American START negotiations. Fu Cong, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's department for arms control and disarmament, said that China's accession to the negotiation process will be only possible after all the parties reach the same downright level of the existing strategic offensive arms. Moreover, Beijing has quite reasonably proposed to get all the countries with nuclear weapons involved in the possible treaty. Without beating around the bush, the Americans, eager to throw Beijing and Moscow together, suggested that the Kremlin involve China in discussing the agreement's fate. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia, aware of its strategic partner's tough position, does not intend to discuss this subject with it.
It should be noted that of the Big Five countries owning strategic offensive weapons (Russia, the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom), only China does carefully hide information about its nuclear potential and plans to build it up. It is not surprising that the estimates of quantitative and qualitative figures as to China's strategic offensive weapons differ significantly in the expert community. Thus, according to various sources, the number of nuclear warheads being in operational service with the People's Liberation Army's, ranges from 250 to 600 (!).
The only thing that can be stated unequivocally is that China's present-day strategic offensive weapons are far below those of Russia and the United States, and this gap is not going to be narrowed within five years (the period of the possible START-3 extension). It is also obvious that Beijing is stepping up the program to modernize its nuclear triad. China is developing a new-generation flying wing stealth bomber, which can enter operational service in 2025. Missile tests continue on the latest heavy ICBM DF-41, which, according to US intelligence, has from six to ten independently targetable warheads and a launch range of up to 15 thousand kilometers. In April last year, a new nuclear submarine of the Jin project, capable of carrying 12 ICBMs, was demonstrated at a parade dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the PLA Navy. As early as in December, a new JL-3 ICBM with a range of about 9 thousand kilometers was launched from one of this project's submarines submerged in the Bohai Gulf (Yellow Sea). The number of missile tests conducted by China last year is twice the total number of such tests carried out by all the other countries.
It is fair to say that the quality level of strategic offensive weapons of China takes Russian and American dust. The technological gap is narrowing, but not at the same pace as with conventional weapons, all the more so as Russia and the United States are also forging ahead. Against this background, China will quite likely provide "nuclear retaliation" to the probable adversary by means of not the quality, but the number of available carriers. In this framework, the question of what Beijing means by the "downright level" becomes open. Stating that China poses a greater threat to the United States than Russia, a number of American analysts motivate this by Beijing's unpredictability and closed nature. Their logic is diabolically simple – it is clear how the Soviet Union behaved, and now Russia does in terms of nuclear parity, but it is far from clear how China will act once it reaches the "downright level" amid the struggle for global leadership.
The White book on China's national defense, published in July 2019, states that China will never, in no case, use nuclear weapons first. At the same time, the document emphasizes that country's readiness to use military force against those going to defend the independence of Taiwan. Beijing's confidence that in the event of a forceful scenario in the Taiwan Strait the United States will not use nuclear weapons to protect its ally, can only be based on achieving a real possibility of a "doomsday" retaliatory strike.
As for the START-3 extension, its fate will be initially determined by the course of the United States' campaign. The Congress has set a deadline for Trump to make a decision on this document – September 7. Trump's rivals, the Democrats, advocate the treaty's extension. The American President will leave it too late and may sign the extension of the treaty depending on the electoral situation and the voters' sentiments. In this case, the best argument in favor of this decision may be Trump's agreement with his "good friend President Xi" to start nuclear negotiations with Beijing's possible accession to START-3 in the future.