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Biden’s arms control initiatives will be more calculated and challenging

While proposing that the US and Russia should reduce their nuclear arsenals, Biden may also demand that Russia and China stop increasing their stockpiles of nuclear warheads Li Bin, physicist and expert on nuclear disarmament, and professor of international relations at Tsinghua University

By Li Bin Updated Apr.1

During the Cold War, arms control was a major means for the US to safeguard its national security. But after the Cold War, arms control has increasingly become a focal point of ideological debates between Republicans and Democrats. The Trump administration took this trend to the extreme by pulling the US out of a series of international arms control agreements, both nuclear and non-nuclear.  

On this issue, the Biden administration holds a quite opposite attitude and will seek to reverse many of Trump’s policies. Biden may seek to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on the basis that Iran returns to strict compliance with the deal.  

On the use of nuclear weapons, the Biden administration’s position may be similar with that of the Obama administration, which emphasizes gaining the moral high ground. Biden may raise the concept that the only objective for US nuclear weapons is to deter and retaliate for nuclear attacks against the US and its allies. Such a concept would be quite close to China’s No-First-Use (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons.  

The Obama administration attempted unsuccessfully to release the policy in its later days. The Biden administration may give it another try, which would again meet resistance from both domestic rivals and allies such as Japan.  

During the administration of George W. Bush, the US decided that it would not negotiate with China on any nuclear arms control deal based on the principle of mutual deterrence. The rationale is that such negotiations would elevate China’s global status. This unofficial policy was followed through by the Obama administration, until the Trump administration demanded that China should join the negotiations on renewing the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which was originally signed by the US and Russia.  

The Biden administration may continue to put pressure on China to join the negotiations on nuclear arms control. But compared with the Trump administration, the Biden administration may adopt more calculated and refined approaches. While proposing that the US and Russia should reduce their nuclear arsenals, Biden may also demand Russia and China stop increasing their stockpiles of nuclear warheads.  

The Biden administration may also release arms control initiatives in other areas, such as space, the internet, hypersonic glide vehicles and military applications of artificial intelligence, which will be rich in technical details. Combined with its efforts to strengthen ties with its allies, the Biden administration could use its influence to push its control agenda in the international community.  

In the meantime, the Biden administration will seek to apply its own interpretation of national security to the business sector to strengthen export control over high-tech products and protect the technological advantages of the US. Compared with the blunt style of the Trump administration, Biden’s approach could be more calculated and challenging for China.  

In summary, the Biden administration’s arms control policy will present both opportunities and risks to China. China must conduct thorough research on potential impacts and be well-prepared at the negotiating table.