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US holding off on new START extension, hoping to bring China into deal

From left, China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands on Nov. 9, 2017, during a meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Trump is isgnaling that he won't back down from his plan to escalate tariffs on China in January. (Artyom Ivanov/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. administration has not decided whether to extend the historic New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia because it wants more time to persuade China to join the negotiations.

A senior administration official told reporters in a White House briefing on February 14 that Beijing’s silence on the matter raises questions about its intentions and will force the United States to strengthen its military readiness to counter any potential threat.

The Trump administration has said it wants an extension of New START — which is set to expire in February 2021 — to include China. The United States and Russia are the two signatories of the treaty that went into effect in 2011.

China, the third-largest nuclear power, is on track to double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. However, China’s arsenal would still be less than half of that of the United States and Russia.

Beijing has not publicly expressed any interest in such talks.

“Continued silence from China creates uncertainty about their intentions and only brings about the need for a renewed focus on deterrence and military readiness for the United States,” the U.S. administration official said.

New START limits deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs held by the United States and Russia to 1,550, a reduction of nearly 75 percent from the 6,000 cap set by START 1, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based, nongovernmental organization.

The treaty also allows for the verification of warheads held by each side, something U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat-Oregon) called “a huge breakthrough” for nonproliferation.

It can be renewed for up to five years if both sides agree. Moscow has already offered to extend the treaty.

New START is now the last remaining nuclear arms agreement between Russia and the United States after Washington withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019 amid accusations Russia had developed a weapon banned by the agreement.

The U.S. administration official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity on February 14, said Washington and Moscow support the idea of bringing China into the pact to avert a costly nuclear arms race.

U.S. national-security adviser Robert O’Brien said earlier this week that “so far — and this is not surprising — the Chinese are not interested in arms control.”

“They’ve got the money, and they’re moving ahead very quickly on every type of advanced platform and weapons system known to man, whether it’s space-based, cyberbased, all different types of kinetic systems.”

“I think we’re hopeful that if we can move forward with the Russians…that there will be pressure on the Chinese, or there will be a desire on the Chinese part not to…incur the expense of an arms race.”

The administration official said that, as the treaty’s expiration date nears, the United States might agree to extend New START to provide more time to include China in an agreement.