Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China


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Tong Zhao and Dmitry Stefanovich
Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament

I am pleased to share this monograph published under the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ project Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament. The current nuclear age is characterized by a simultaneous collapse of arms control agreements and the absence of strategic dialogue among the United States, Russia, and China—the three main nuclear players. As we know from the Russia-Ukraine War, today’s era is showing worrisome trends for the stability and security of the global nuclear order. As demonstrated during the Cold War, the creation of platforms for innovative brainstorming on areas of common ground is an essential step to reduce tensions, minimize the potential risks of nuclear escalation and arms racing, and promote a more cooperative international environment.

The Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament project brings together nuclear experts to discuss areas of opportunity and policy recommendations. One strand of the project’s work consists of a series of Track-2 dialogues among experts and former policy-makers from the United States, Russia, and China that is designed to identify critical short-term goals in arms control. A second strand of work builds on the Academy’s prior experience organizing educational sessions on a range of topics for the United States Congress. Through a series of engagements with members of Congress and their staffs, the project fosters knowledge on key issues and challenges facing the United States.

A third strand of work weaves the project’s expert discussions and policy recommendations together to produce publications on critical debates within nuclear arms control. This monograph features scholarly contributions from two experts who discuss practical measures to reduce security challenges and mitigate the impact of missile defense on the stability of the relationships among the United States, Russia, and China. In addition to investments in a range of military programs, Washington, Beijing, and Moscow have been developing new missile defense technologies that create new strategic competition, increase the risk of misunderstandings, and heighten threat perceptions.

In “Managing the Impact of Missile Defense on U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses the Chinese view on the security dilemma between Washington and Beijing. Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations based in Moscow, covers the Russian view in “The Indispensable Link: Strategic Defensive Capabilities as a Cornerstone of Arms Control and Arms Racing.”

Tong’s essay explains how the global investment in missile defense has created a security dilemma, especially in the bilateral strategic relationship between the United States and China. He explains the concerns of the Chinese nuclear and policy community. Beijing fears that the United States could acquire capable missile defense technology that would make Chinese responses to nuclear strikes impossible and hence weaken deterrence. On the other hand, policy-makers in the United States are concerned that Chinese nuclear buildup is not a response to U.S. missile defense but rather reflects a desire to expand beyond its traditional minimum nuclear deterrence posture. Tong stresses that a better understanding of each other’s thinking is urgently necessary if China and the United States are to address crisis instability. He sees an opportunity for mutual compromise given Chinese concern about U.S. missile defense and the U.S. concern about Chinese antisatellite technologies. Both states could explore a quantitative limit on China’s stockpile in exchange for a limit on U.S. deployed strategic capabilities, including its missile defense systems.

In the second essay, Dmitry explains the Russian view on missile defense developments and the strategic stability dialogue with the United States. Russian military strategists are concerned by U.S. space capabilities that enable and enhance Earth-based missile defenses and by the global presence of U.S. missile defense with strike platforms and sensors distributed in several allied countries. Similarly, Moscow has been working to improve its missile defense programs—very much to the concern of the United States. However, Dmitry identifies a few areas for future negotiations, including a Track I discussion, altered language in missile defense reviews, and conversations among experts over technical capabilities.

While both authors highlight that the development of new missile defense technologies adds to the complexity of the U.S. relationship with China and Russia, they also note that there are opportunities for two-way conversations and confidence-building diplomacy. The heightened geopolitical tensions among the three players have underlined the urgency of nuclear arms control work. Amid the war in Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine how arms control between Russia and the United States could be reconstructed. However, arms control was never intended to be a fair-weather policy instrument. Rather, it was the dangers of severe and unrelenting competition and friction between heavily armed superpowers that inspired thinking about the feasibility and desirability of arms control and the kinds of measures that might limit the risks associated with nuclear-armed rivalry. There is an opportunity to shape and impact the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament at a critical time in history. Most important, Washington, Moscow, and Beijing should explicitly indicate their willingness to consider cooperative measures, and experts should start to seriously explore concrete cooperative measures they each could take.

These lessons about the importance of bilateral discussions, transparency, and unambiguous messages are deeply relevant to the challenges we face today. The authors remind us of the increasing dangers if the United States, Russia, and China do not communicate. The Academy will continue its work to bring together experts from these countries under the Promoting Dialogue project’s series of Track 2 meetings and publication series that are designed to highlight critical goals in arms control.

The Academy has played a crucial role in the nuclear field, particularly when a viable path to cooperation and collective governance was not clear. In 1959, at the height of the Cold War and the nuclear standoff between the United States and the USSR, members of the American Academy, including Donald Brennan, Thomas Schelling, and Henry Kissinger, among others, gathered at the Academy to rethink the framework that had governed relations between the two superpowers following World War II and to offer a new model of global interaction. The work of this group, in partnership with contemporaneous policy-makers, helped pave the way for the adoption of a new American nuclear posture based on strategic stability and arms reduction, rather than on arms accumulation. Since then, the American Academy has conducted more than a dozen projects focused on arms control and nuclear policy topics, ranging from the future of submarine-based deterrents to international arrangements for nuclear fuel reprocessing, to weapons in space. Our work continues to shape the dialogue in the nuclear field.

I have no doubt that this publication will serve as an important contribution to contemporary thinking about approaches to arms control and missile defense. The Academy will present and share this publication through a series of outreach activities, and it will be translated into Russian and Chinese for dissemination to policy-makers and the arms control communities in Moscow and Beijing.

I would like to thank Allan Myer, Belinda Frankel, and the Raymond Frankel Foundation for their generous support of the Promoting Dialogue project. I also want to thank Doreen Horschig, Melissa Chan, and Michelle Poulin in the Academy’s Global Security and International Affairs program area for their diligent work.

David W. Oxtoby
President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences