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Trump administration pushes allies to pressure China over its nuclear program

The Trump administration is working to pressure NATO allies to collectively crackdown on China's nuclear program as it looks to limit Beijing's growing influence in the global arms race.

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Vivian Salama
CNN — The Trump administration is working to pressure NATO allies to collectively crackdown on China's nuclear program as it looks to limit Beijing's growing influence in the global arms race.

In a meeting with NATO allies last week President Donald Trump's top envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea urged allies to impose stricter arms control regulations on Beijing. The administration has been looking to convince China to enter into a nuclear agreement with the US and Russia, but with days to go until the election, efforts to extend an agreement with Russia have been fast-tracked and are proceeding absent the participation of Beijing which has not shown an interest in taking part in talks in recent times.

Billingslea's efforts are part of a broader push by the Trump administration to assert its view that China -- and not Russia -- presents the biggest threat to American national security, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 virus, and the economic downturn in the US, which Trump has blamed on Beijing. Billingslea urged allies to impose consequences on China for its nuclear expansion, similar to the consequences China is increasingly facing over its 5G network, believed by the Trump administration and other countries to be a tool for espionage.

The administration is arguing that China's efforts to increase the size of it means the US and its allies must take preemptive defensive actions, includes the deployment of additional missile defenses, to counteract the thousands of missiles China is allegedly building up. The administration also argues that China's nuclear expansion legitimizes its own expansion of deep strike capabilities to push back China's missile battalions.

"Unlike the United States and Russia where our nuclear weapons programs are both functionally and characteristically distinct -- this particular reactor is for military purposes or for civilian purposes, The Chinese co-mingle everything. So all of their civil nuclear program is under the same Chinese communist party enterprises," a senior administration official told CNN.

They noted that the Chinese "have a doctrine called military civil fusion and the doctrine says any civil company will furnish upon request to the party technology for military applications. It's quite an alarming thing."

US showed allies satellite images

As part of his messaging to NATO allies, Billingslea showed a series of satellite images depicting the expansion of China's nuclear program over the past decade. The images, reviewed by CNN, were not particularly revelatory, nor did they offer any new information that might sway allies reluctant to go after China for its nuclear program.

"It is no great secret," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. "The work at Jiuquan and Jintai is part of China's program to recycle plutonium from its civilian nuclear reactors. China has announced this work publicly...While this plutonium could be used to make a nuclear weapon, the United States and other nuclear states would not use plutonium produced in civilian reactors because it is undesirable in a number of ways."

Mianyang -- one of the sites highlighted in Billingslea's presentation to NATO allies, is where China designs its nuclear weapons. Like the US, Russia and other nuclear-weapons states, China has a robust simulation program to sustain its stockpile without testing, and it makes no secret about that, Lewis added.

A spokesperson for NATO declined to comment on the meeting. A senior official with one NATO member state told CNN, "it's obviously something we all care about," but said that the meeting ended with no clear request or plan of action from the US.

Despite progress in reducing Cold War nuclear arsenals, the world's combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level, although the number is reducing. Approximately 91% of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles.

That said, the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom are reducing their overall warhead inventories, France and Israel have relatively stable inventories, while China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are increasing the number of warheads they possess, according to the Federation of American Scientists. This is particularly troubling to Washington and other allies who see an uptick in border disputes between China, India and Pakistan.

The Pentagon lists Chinese warhead stockpile as being in the "low-200s," although that number is widely believed to be higher since the Pentagon's most recent estimate, from 2019, only includes "operational" warheads. By comparison, Russia's total inventory is believed to be over 6,000 warheads, while the US currently has about 5,800.

In September, the Pentagon said that China is attempting to at least double the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal in the next decade and its military has already equaled or surpassed the United States in a series of key areas.

Billingslea has made outreach efforts to China over its nuclear program but the Chinese have not responded and have shown very little enthusiasm for engaging in nuclear talks with either the US or Russia. All the while, efforts to engage the Russians in discussions over arms control have made headway in recent weeks as the February 2021 expiration date of the New START agreement, designed to reduce the risk of war between Russia and the West, approaches.

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump's Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, have said they would look to extend the treaty. However, Trump said he'd only agree to an extension if both sides also agree to freeze all warhead stockpiles. Putin said he'd consider freezing all warhead stockpiles, although officials say it remains unclear how sincere he is in that promise.

The US has previously offered Russia to sign a presidential memorandum that would serve as a blueprint for the next comprehensive deal and cover points of concern for the US, including China's nuclear potential and Russia's tactical nuclear weapons.

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