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Interview with David Santoro, President of the Pacific Forum

David Santoro

In an interview with David Santoro, President of the Pacific Forum, we discussed prospects for nuclear nonproliferation cooperation within the P5, strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific, and Chinese nuclear strategy. Please note that the interview took place on February 18 before the recent geopolitical tensions in Europe.

In 2012, you were saying that “Much of the success against proliferation will be determined by the role that the Five choose to play,” referring to the P5 that had developed sufficient detection instruments but still lacked policy tools. Do you see any windows of opportunity in light of current developments? How should the P5 proceed now?

In 2012 I was optimistic and believed there could be some positive developments among the P5 and major middle powers… As you know, in 2009 and in the Review Conference 2010 the P5 agreed to meet on a regular basis to discuss important nonproliferation challenges, and so there was some enthusiasm for world governance, addressing key challenges and focusing particularly on nonproliferation crises that we had, for instance, Iran and the DPRK. Several years later the world became a different place with more competition between the US and Russia, and, I would say, more awareness of the US-China potential competition… Of course, we also have proliferation crises with Iran and North Korea, as well as an array of international problems, such as climate change, transnational security threats, etc. I am a lot less optimistic about what the P5 can do to address those challenges. At the same time, in 2012 there was a sense that we had some level of general agreement between the P5 that we could address external factors. Now what we have is a situation in which we have these external challenges but there are internal problems between the P5, which makes it even more difficult to agree how to tackle these external issues, and I would like to add that the challenges between the US, Russia and China are taking a center stage over external factors. However, I don’t want to give up on the P5 because I think it’s worthwhile that they meet on regular basis, discuss doctrines and other ways to fight the nonproliferation crisis but I don’t think the situation is as promising as ten years ago.

It seems like in recent two or three years there has been much talk about the P5 and its potential role. So, you believe that these discussions about the P5 are simply because we have no better instruments rather than because we can use it effectively? Do I understand you correctly?

I think that is right. Unfortunately, that is where we are. The only thing I want to add is that the P5 is not a platform to help resolve problems that we have in US-Russia and US-China relations. As you know, the US and Russia decided to extend New START, which, I think, was a good development but took place outside the P5 framework. If we launch another round of negotiations on arms control, it will be outside the P5. If we manage to resolve what is going on in Ukraine, it will be done outside the P5 framework as well. Shifting to US-China relations, if we manage to agree to crisis management, its mechanisms, we’ll do it outside the P5 Process. Of course, P5 can discuss these issues, but when it comes to agreeing to some practical, concrete measures, that’s not the platform to do it. The P5 can reinforce the general sense what is going on but I don’t think this is where practical measures will be negotiated.

We know that traditionally China sticks to an ambiguity policy on its nuclear arsenal. The Chinese believe (or used to believe) that an official dialogue is impossible if it requires China to reveal exact current and planned future numbers of its nuclear arsenal because such a step would undermine China’s limited deterrent. What are the prospects for this ambiguity policy? Will China agree to greater transparency as its arsenal allegedly grows and ceases to be as limited as it was?

As a starting point, I agree with you. I think China’s nuclear posture and policy is changing. That is not what China is saying. It states that its policy remains unchanged; that they are modernizing the nuclear arsenal but they are not going to change the way they operate the arsenals. It pushes back to what you are saying: China is changing the posture. The developments it is undertaking are de-facto changing their posture and policy. As you have rightly said, for the longest time China stated that it was not ready for a dialogue as it had much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia. Therefore, China is unwilling to engage in a dialogue because in this case it regards itself as a weaker part. China does not want to reveal anything. As you know, new evidence has surfaced that the PRC is engaging in a nuclear build-up. The question is how long it is going to state it is weak. Actually, I have not seen any change in the way China formulates an argument for the dialogue. It is unlikely that we will have two dialogues for arms control purposes. As for US-Russia relations, there is a demand for negotiations on arms control because we have rough parity in numbers and vast experience in talks on strategic stability. With China and its build-up, the arsenals are still very different, and I don’t think it’s possible to get to a situation when we will have a dialogue that should form an arms control agreement. What I am constantly telling my Chinese colleagues is that we shouldn’t have arms control as a goal but focus on crisis avoidance and management. As you know, this is how Russia-US strategic relations started. The first agreement between the US and the Soviet Union was the Hotline agreement in 1963, which was not arms control but a crisis management system that eventually developed into an arms control relationship. This is where, I think, there is a potential movement with Beijing. If we start a dialogue on crisis management and see where it goes, maybe we will come to an arms control process. So, responding to your question more directly, China wouldn’t have to reveal much; it could still keep its ambiguous policy but it would have to open up in terms of how we can manage a conflict if it breaks out. However, even on the question of crisis avoidance and management I see some interest among the Chinese national security community but overall resistance to engage in this process on an official level.

In Russia there have been some discussion on whether US-China arms control is actually possible. Some experts, including Alexey Arbatov, have argued that there is no way to agree to a principle to do this because there are two competing approaches. The first one consists in pursuing the same level of reductions. The second answer is that we need to approach the same level that China has, implying US should give up on most of its warheads and missiles to level up with China. Do you think this conceptual dilemma can be resolved or will it continue to exist?

I don’t see potential to resolve the problem right now because the arsenal levels are very different in many features: in size, structure and other ways. So, I am in favor of crisis management. By promoting this approach, the two sides can form cooperation habits. However, the reality is that once we have this dialogue, we will eventually go back to the arms control process but arsenals will be still different. That’s why we need to think creatively how to do this job. We are talking that there should be symmetry in arsenals, but I think we should be ready for asymmetric arms control. The US and USSR reduced the same levels of missiles and warheads but now new approaches should be taken due to such quantitative and qualitative difference in arsenals. As we move forward, I hope for crisis management and creative thinking on how we can make asymmetric arms control.

Many experts tend to think that bilateral arms control was made possible only after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 but others claim that it was only given the green light later, as the parity of nuclear forces had been reached. What is your take on this?

I think it’s probably a mix of reasons. The arms control process began because the two superpowers got scared by the Cuban missile crisis, which made them think about potential risks of further struggle. However, practical actions became implementable when the parity had been achieved. Today, we mustn’t wait for another crisis and take action at once. In my opinion, we should not wait for China to catch or Russia and the US to do something because the situation is too tough to ignore the problem. I’m taking a point that arms control is difficult so we should think creatively and translate crisis management into an actionable agenda.

In 2017, you pointed out that during the Cold War “[t]he primary reason for the absence of SNPD [strategic nuclear policy dialogues in Asia], however, was that the US alliance system in Asia was not designed for dialogue.” You say the U.S. feared that “anti-communist leaders might engage in aggressive behaviour against adversaries that could trap the United States in an unwanted war.” Now as the Quad and AUKUS have been established, do you think that the U.S. will continue reshaping its alliance policy in the region towards multilateral arrangements? If so, are there any security risks that may result from this shift?

Very few people in the US or anywhere in the world know the history of the US alliance system, and I think it’s important to look at its origins to find out how it looked and what it became today. The reality is that in Europe in the late 1940s the goal was to create a multilateral defense system, and the US held wide discussion with its allies to implement it. That was not the case in Asia. In Asia, the primary goal of alliances was to prevent allies from creating problems and controlling them. In brief, the alliance in Europe was catered for multilateralizing security, whilst the alliance is Asia served for controlling the allies. It happened because the USA gave priority to Europe instead of Asia but it was only in the Cold War. Now it is different. The situation has significantly changed in Europe but now in Asia the US is taking measures to engage its allies to strengthen their self-defense, engage in talks with the US and each other more. Today in the region we can see bilateral dialogues, trilateral cooperation called AUKUS and QUAD. There is an interest in the US to multilateralize not only American allies but also alliances themselves, thus creating “the system of systems”, and we will witness such tendencies in Asia more.

However, will this system cause risks that materialized in the Cold War, e.g., states behaving differently from the US expectations?

I mean, there is always a risk that problems in the alliances are either going to attract the USA, make it analyze stakes and decide if a risk is unwanted, or make the US abandon them. So, there are such two dynamics. Well, they create a number of risks but the whole point from the US perspective is trying to generate closer cooperation of its allies at the economic, political, military and other levels so as to mitigate possible risks. That is why the concept of “integrated deterrence” is expanding in the modern academic field.

Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels argued in 2021 that the United States should revitalize its alliances with Japan and South Korea by exploring “the wartime sharing of nuclear weapons,” which might involve “modifying hardware (e.g., certifying allied F-35s for nuclear delivery), acquiring new systems, and training air or naval crews in tactical nuclear strikes and command and control.” From your perspective, is Asian nuclear sharing a viable option for the U.S.?

What the US is trying to do and is requested to do by its allies in Asia is to strengthen deterrence, particularly extended one. The system includes not only nuclear but also conventional deterrence, and for the last 10-15 years the USA has been focusing on the latter one. There are few voices in the allied states requesting the deployment of US nuclear weapon on the Korean Peninsula, and there are far less voices in Japan arguing for the exercise of nuclear sharing. So, these measures are not what the US allies in North-East Asia are interested in. From the US perspective, the biggest priority is on the conventional level. The US is acknowledged to have a much bigger nuclear arsenal than China, so there is no sense of gap here. However, the balance of conventional power is shifting in China’s favor, and this is where certain work should be done. When the US declares about the deployment of missiles in North-East Asia, we talk about conventional-typed ones. All in all, I don’t see the US priority in nuclear sharing at the moment.

When commenting on AUKUS in 2021, you said: “Now power politics is back in force. Non-proliferation still matters but isn’t the sole consideration anymore”. Do you think that nonproliferation risks associated with AUKUS are real or illusory? Is the idea of using AUKUS to strengthen the NPT worth scholarly attention?

To comment first on AUKUS, at the end of the Cold War, the US priority became nonproliferation. There was a sense that the major powers’ competition closed to its end. Now the situation has completely changed, and the geopolitical matters became a priority. The creation of AUKUS is its reflection. The priority in geopolitical matters in no way means that nonproliferation does not matter anymore but there is deep competition between the need to consider geopolitics alongside to still the nonproliferation value. Going back to your question whether we can use AUKUS to strengthen non-proliferation, my sense is that it will take a long way to operationalize AUKUS but I’m confident there will be appropriate safeguards put in place to make sure the arrangement does not undermine nonproliferation. I understand arguments of many experts saying that AUKUS creates a precedent how it can be damaging for non-proliferation but I am confident Australia and other signatories to the arrangement will make effort to mitigate these risks, which make them worry.

In 2020, you co-authored a paper for IFSH on U.S.-Chinese-Russian trilateral arms control. Many discussions are now focused on whether such arrangements are possible at all. But: let’s assume they are indeed possible. Where do you think these trilateral arms control arrangements should emerge from? Existing SSD formats between Russia and the U.S. and China and the U.S., respectively, with third party “joining in”, or should it be a brand-new framework?

We will see what path this process develops: if the US-Russia dialogues continue, US-China negotiations may also start. Apart from those, we should bear in mind possible discussions between Russia and China too. My guess is that the trilateral arms control process will start with two independent dialogues that will eventually emerge to some agreement in no particular platform that exists. I think it will be ad hoc. I don’t see these negotiations taking place either at the Conference on Disarmament or the P5 Process. I suppose these platforms like actors can actually support the arms control process but I do not think they will be key venues for talks because they are not designed for it. However, I would like to add that the Conference on Disarmament and the P5 Process can be a platform for diplomats to explain processes taking places in trilateral negotiations.

When it comes to trilateral arms control, we will likely encounter the problem that Russia regards British and French nuclear arsenals as part of some broader NATO arsenal. Is there any way to address this concern for Russia so as to agree to this kind of agreement?

In fact, there is a big difference between the British and French arsenals. The French nuclear arsenal is known to be more independent from NATO and the US unlike the British one. We realize that Russia expresses deep concern upon the two nuclear-weapon states. If we launched a five-party negotiating platform, the multilateral arms control process would not happen within the P5 framework because it is not adaptive to it. All arms control processes will be held independently.

As you say, the United States and China disagree on such basic concepts as “deterrence” and “strategic attack,” which makes any long-term agreement difficult to attain. If this problem exists even at the bilateral level, is there a way to address it in multilateral arms control? Is the P5 Process helpful in this regard?

When it comes to arms control, firstly, what we have to do is to isolate the political aspect and focus solely on capabilities because if we do not do it, we will not move forward. Secondly, we should conceptualize nuclear arsenals and the way we use them, e.g., nuclear posture, etc. However, one should take into account that every nuclear-weapon state thinks about nuclear arsenals in different ways.


The interview was conducted by Artem Kvartalnov, a Junior Research Fellow of PIR Center, on February 18, 2022