Arms control under Biden administration

China Military Online
Li Wei
2021-02-19 18:14:43

By Li Bin

Arms control was once an important US approach to safeguarding national security during the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, arms control has become a bipartisan ideological label in the US. The Trump administration pushed this ideological struggle to the extreme and pulled the country out of a series of international arms control mechanisms involving disarmament and non-proliferation. Unlike its predecessor, Joe Biden’s team takes a different approach toward arms control, which can be seen from the tradition of the Democratic Party, Biden’s campaign program and the experience of his cast.

As a starter, the Biden administration will try to repair the damage done by the Trump administration's withdrawal from several arms control agreements, with re-joining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) being a key step. After Trump abandoned the Iranian nuclear deal, he slapped sanctions on Iran and other entities having trade relations with Iran, which was met with Iran’s vengeful activities. The Biden administration will ask Tehran to get back to the original state, which is the precondition for America’s return to the deal.

Like the Obama administration, the Biden administration will hold up high the banner of arms control. It is expected that the only purpose of the US development of nuclear weapons is to deter and counter nuclear attacks. The Obama administration also considered putting forth this policy at the end of its term but did not materialize in the end. Now Biden will make a second try even if some forces in the US will try to prevent it.

When George Walker Bush was in office, he made the rule that Washington would not discuss with Beijing on the nuclear disarmament based on mutual deterrence because he thought that would raise China's status. Such a hidden rule had always been followed by some conservative politicians until the Trump administration, who tried to bring China into the US-Russia New START talks.

Trump's successor Biden will also ask China to join the nuclear disarmament, but with a more ingenious logic and arrangement. For instance, it will propose for Washington and Moscow to continue cutting their strategic nuclear arsenal, but in the meantime will request all three parties to freeze the total number of nuclear warheads – a proposal much more complex and more carefully designed than Trump’s proposal.

The Biden administration will put forth an arms control initiative fraught with technical details and covering a wide range of high-tech domains, including outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic aircraft, and military application of AI, and then peddle this initiative across the world, especially among its allies. The initiative will be hyped up as the blueprint during the arms control discussions among the communities, which will follow and reflect the American logic.

While cooperating with allies, the Biden administration will also impose security considerations upon business in the name of non-proliferation and tighten the grip on high-tech export to maintain its technological superiority – in a way stealthier and more elusive than what the Trump administration did.

The Biden administration's arms control policy will bring both cooperation opportunities and competition for China and the US. Most importantly, its arms control initiative will be so complicated and nuanced that a simple "yes" or "no" will not be enough to deal with it.

(The author is a guest researcher at the Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS) and a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University.)

(Editor's note: this article is originally published on, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of


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