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Would China bring a new start to New START?

Could great power competition lead the US down a path to nuclear war? Listen to the latest episode of the Things That Go Boom podcast, a co-production of PRX and InkStick Media.

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National flags of Russia and the US fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia, April 11, 2017.

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Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The Things That Go Boom podcast is a co-production of PRX and Inkstick Media, and is a partner of The World. This season on the podcast: What kinds of security risks are building out there? We’ll look at misinformation, shadow warfare and ask if democracy is even still in vogue.

When US President Donald Trump took office in 2017, the US was a party to four existing arms control treaties: the Iran deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty and New START. 

One by one, Trump has pulled the US out of international agreements designed to limit the threat of nuclear war. Now, New START, the last major bilateral arms control agreement governing the reduction of nuclear weaponry, is set to expire in February 2021 — and the Trump administration isn't eager to renew it. 

From season one: Nothing good happens after 'nuclear midnight' 

During the Cold War, Americans learned to duck and cover because they were living with the ever-present threat of an atomic blast. The Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s brought the US right to the edge of the nuclear abyss. Over the next 50 years or so, treaties between the US and Russia kept bringing the world back from the brink. 

New START is one of those treaties. It allows the US and Russia to have a real-time look inside each other's arsenals. But if New START isn’t extended in February 2021, it will be the first time in 50 years that the US and Russia don’t have on-the-ground insights into each other’s nuclear forces. 

" ... when you don't have that kind of excellent daily intelligence from each other's side, you start to plan based on your assumptions rather than the reality."

Alex Bell, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

“That's dangerous because when you don't have that kind of excellent daily intelligence from each other's side, you start to plan based on your assumptions rather than the reality,” said Alex Bell, a former State Department official and senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “And the more you're doing that, the more that the risk goes up of miscalculation of accidents. And that's exactly why we got into arms control in the first place.” 

New START can be easily extended. The extension is actually built into the treaty, and Russia has said it’s interested. But the Trump administration is holding out — instead hoping to pull China into a new, comprehensive agreement. 

Related: Will New START nuclear treaty survive ‘hostile’ US-Russia relations?

“If China is indeed the kind or responsible power that it proclaims itself to be, then there is no alternative but to sit down and take that responsibility seriously in the strategic nuclear realm as well,” Chris Ford, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, told PBS's News Hour in March.   

But Bell says that approach is not likely to work.

“China has said many times that it is not interested in this kind of a negotiation,” Bell said. “[It] often points out that the US and the Russians have exponentially larger nuclear stockpiles and need to get their own houses in order before we talk about further multilateral nuclear reductions.” 

Experts estimate that China has about 290 nuclear weapons. The US and Russia each have more than 6,000.

"[China] will join an arms control agreement when they think it's in their national security interest to do so.”

Alex Bell, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

“It's absolutely essential that China eventually be pulled into these kinds of agreements, and we should be laying the groundwork for such a time,” Bell continued. “But they will join an arms control agreement when they think it's in their national security interest to do so.” 

Related: Was the US sleeping through China's rise?

Along with the possibility that the US may drop out of the New START treaty, officials inside the Trump administration have begun discussing the possibility of a return to nuclear tests, according to The Washington Post. Proponents argue that the US should resume testing now because Russia and China have been conducting low-level nuclear tests of their own.

But so far, there’s no evidence that’s true — and nuclear testing has its own dangerous history.  

The heyday of US nuclear tests began with the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. The bulk of those tests were conducted in Nevada and in the Marshall Islands, on or near Indigenous lands and far from policymakers in Washington, DC. 

Communities are still dealing with the environmental and health consequences, which is part of the reason testing hasn't been done in almost three decades. The US has even signed, but not yet ratified, a treaty banning testing altogether.

Many experts say a new nuclear test could lead other countries to follow suit. 

“I think what we're not talking about is: What are we competing over?"

Alex Bell, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

“I think what we're not talking about is: What are we competing over? What is the goal of what we're doing here? Are we going to compete in an arms race? Is that the goal? Is it a conventional and nuclear arms race that we're facing? And it kind of looks like we're going out of our way to start one rather than preclude one,” Bell said.  

Related: 'World War C': How did national security miss the coronavirus?

Recently, Trump’s special envoy on arms control, Marshall Billingslea, said the administration is willing to spend Russia and China “into oblivion” to win a new nuclear arms race.

But could greater competition lead the US down a path to nuclear war?

“We were lucky to escape the Cold War with minimal damage and no nuclear conflagration,” Bell said. ”If we repeat the same play now with Russia and China, I just — there’s no guarantee that we can actually make it out unscathed again. ... in all likelihood, the longer we go with this nuclear status quo …. the more likely it is that a nuclear weapon is going to go off again.” 

The scale of some hydrogen bombs could easily take down a city. “If one of those went off in Washington, DC, assuming a perfectly clear day, you'd be able to see that from the Statue of Liberty in New York Ccity,” said Alex Wellerstein, a professor with the Stevens Institute of Technology and a historian of nuclear weapons. “It's, like, visible even over the curve of the earth.

So how can the US reduce the risk of disaster?

“It would be really great if the United States would stop dropping out of treaties,” Bell said. The Trump administration's really ... squandering away the inheritance that it received from so many US administrations before that went out of their way to build this very intricate infrastructure to manage conflict, to prevent war. … If we desperately want to get back into Great Power Competition that mimics the Cold War except for with one additional actor ... we're well on our way.”

This isn't the whole story. To hear more, including how to estimate the likelihood of surviving a nuclear blast in your city, listen above and subscribe to the Things That Go Boom podcast

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