Foreign Policy Briefing No. 91

Beyond Symbolism? The U.S. Nuclear Disarmament Agenda and Its Implications for Chinese and Indian Nuclear Policy

By Lavina Lee
February 8, 2011

The Obama administration has elevated nuclear disarmament to the center of its nuclear agenda through the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia and the release of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The administration also expects that its professed goal of “getting to zero” has symbolic value and will encourage reciprocity in terms of disarmament and nuclear arms control by other nuclear weapons states, as well as cooperation on measures to limit nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism. In the case of the two rising powers of Asia — China and India — it is highly questionable whether either of these expectations will be met.

From China’s perspective, New START is merely a first, tentative step toward global disarmament, while the NPR is disturbingly ambiguous on key issues and retains a worrisome emphasis on ballistic missile defense. In the case of India, any decision to reciprocate on disarmament and arms control will be more strongly influenced by concerns about China than by any ideological commitment to a nuclear- free world or developments in Washington’s nuclear posture. Washington’s emphasis on disarmament could provide both states, especially China, with a pretext for limiting their cooperation on U.S. nonproliferation goals that are more important and achievable. Because of that risk, the United States should be cautious about dissipating its advantages in the nuclear arena without getting significant concessions in return.

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Lavina Lee is a lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She is the author of U.S. Hegemony and Legitimacy: Norms, Power and Followership in the Wars on Iraq (Routledge, 2010).