Challenges for Nuclear Arms Control in the Era of Strategic Competition Among Major Powers

Nobumasa Akiyama


As nuclear threat mushrooms in the East Asian strategic environment due to China and North Korea's qualitative and quantitative nuclear buildup, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, using nuclear blackmail, makes many people believe that the nuclear threat is graver and imminent. In addition, Russia continuingly develops new "exotic" nuclear capabilities. 1

A definitive assessment of the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on the role of nuclear weapons in security will have to wait until the ongoing war ends. Several scenarios can be envisaged regarding the relationship between the termination of the war and nuclear weapons. (1) Russia is cornered, and the war ends before Russia resorts to nuclear weapons in a situation disadvantageous to it; (2) Russia's nuclear blackmail escalates, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is forced to restrict its support activities toward Ukraine; or (3) nuclear weapons are used in varied situations ranging from an all-out nuclear war to a limited nuclear war. The assessment of the role of nuclear weapons will vary with specific situations.

Nonetheless, one thing is certain: China and Russia are strengthening their nuclear capabilities, assuming a posture extremely antagonistic to the West; as long as their intentions cannot be deemed to be friendly, it is necessary to enhance the effectiveness of deterrence to prepare for threats posed by them and the risk of their using nukes. At the same time, it is desirable to envision arms control as a measure to manage the risk of unintended escalation and to reduce such a risk in the medium to long term. Many argue the shift from a world working on a "nuclear-free goal" to one "without nuclear arms control." 2 Although immediate actions may be hard to take, it is crucial to consider ways to manage risks in both the short and the medium to long term.

Mutual deterrence between major powers has been institutionalized through the formation of arms control regimes, which have regulated the use of power and maintained the stability of their relationships ("strategic stability"). 3 William Walker defines this system as a "managed system of deterrence" that seeks to avoid war and pursue stability among major powers and constitutes a global nuclear order in tandem with a "managed system of abstinence" that guarantees nonproliferation. 4 However, the effectiveness of the conventional "managed system of deterrence" is seriously questioned due to changes in the strategic relationships among major powers associated with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, and changes like the application of emerging technologies to military systems.

Focusing on great power relations and the impact of emerging technologies, this paper is intended to discuss elements that define the structure of nuclear arms control regimes among major powers for risk control and the management of a future deterrence system.

1. Changes in Strategic Competition among Major Powers

(1) Significance of Arms Control

The primary role of arms control is to maintain "strategic stability." In US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, the escalation into an armed conflict of a confrontation between the two countries in a state of mutually assured destruction meant an ultimate all-out war. Arms control was designed to avoid such escalation (crisis stability) and to curb arms races in order not to generate a security dilemma (arms race stability), thereby preventing the disruption of the US-Russia relationship and resulting catastrophic consequences.

Architects of arms control were not satisfied with the mere maintenance of a state of mutual deterrence; they "institutionalized" the system by laying down rules to stabilize that state. As a result, arms control has contributed to keeping the behavior of both sides foreseeable and to maintaining their relationship capable of preventing military conflicts and uncontrollable escalation. 5

The United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) created a strategic competition framework dealing solely with an arms race in offensive capabilities by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (1971) and defined competition and balance on the offensive front by the strategic nuclear balance. To this end, the two countries built multilateral arms control regimes comprising treaties controlling strategic nuclear weapons—SALT I (1971), START I (1991), the Moscow Treaty (2002), the New START (2010); the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987) providing for denuclearization at the European regional level; and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) designed to pursue stability at the conventional force level. 6

The United States and the Soviet Union pursued quantitative and qualitative (technological) advantage while establishing strategic stability through arms control. It is evident that under the US-Soviet arms control regime during the Cold War, both sides pursued relative advantage while following diverse regulations. If a state can restrict the possession of and access to nuclear weapons and missiles by the actors likely to threaten it, the former can maintain its military advantage. Arguably, the US pursuit of arms control during the Cold War was motivated by its trust in nuclear superiority. 7

During the Cold War, successive US administrations strove to acquire qualitative advantage over the Soviet Union through arms control diplomacy. 8 The Soviet Union also pursued the same. 9 Under the US-Soviet arms control regime, the United States and the Soviet Union concurrently made independent efforts to gain competitive advantage—technological efforts to improve the accuracy of warheads, realize the multiplication of warheads, and improve command-and-control systems and surveillance capabilities.

(2) Weakening of the Arms Control Regime

As competition intensifies over building a deterrence posture suitable to the new security environment, the United States will be obliged to eventually negotiate with Russia and China to introduce some new regulations (arms control) over nuclear weapons for the following two reasons. First, the necessity of risk management by establishing and institutionalizing "strategic stability." Second, the necessity of setting the game framework and rules to gain comparative military advantage. The second reason appears to be a subordinate one, but it is an essential element to consider in discussing and negotiating arms control modalities.

Why does a nuclear arms control regime between major powers institutionalize "strategic stability?" At present, a laissez-faire nuclear deterrence without a governing framework is the only great-power relationship regarding nuclear weapons. This situation is too risky from the perspective of avoiding crisis escalation. Arms control undertakes the role of a kind of "guardrail" to prevent the unchecked escalation of strategic competition and the aggrandizement of risk. 10 However, Russia's behavior in the Russo-Ukrainian war undermined the premise of the US-Russian arms control regime and diminished the regime's "guardrail" role.

After the Cold War ended, the primary US concerns about nuclear risk shifted to nuclear weapons held by rogue states and nuclear terrorism by non-state actors; the potential risk between the United States and Russia was considered the escalation of tensions stemming from misunderstanding and miscalculation rather than one due to intensified strategic rivalry. Yet, in the process of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has created a situation that appears to justify using nuclear weapons through false flag operations fabricating fake information about Ukraine's production of biological and chemical weapons, thereby raising global concerns about the possible use of nuclear weapons. 11 Russia appears to have attempted to deter NATO intervention in the war through nuclear blackmail and to take the lead in escalation control.

With mutual deterrence at the strategic level with the United States as background, the Soviet Union (Russia) used to attempt to gain advantage in regional-level conflicts by raising the credibility of its nuclear blackmail through deliberate escalation. This is the nuclear threat that had passed into "oblivion" since the latter part of the Cold War through the post-Cold War period. 12 Given Russia's incorporating of the idea of limited nuclear use in its nuclear policy, it is essential to build up an integrated deterrence system assuming the possibility of using nukes not only at the global strategic level but also at the regional or non-strategic level. The integrated deterrence system should address threats derived from conventional weapons, cyber, and other new domains besides nuclear weapons. 13 Such an escalation risk must be allowed for in conceptualizing arms control modalities. 14

In addition, this integration of strategic and non-strategic deterrence was partly because the US-Russian arms control regime was eroded by Russian noncompliance. Russia committed noncompliance with several arms control agreements, including the INF Treaty, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Treaty on Open Skies. This suggests that the United States and Russia are at odds over the recognition of the role of arms control agreements. 15 It may be safe to say that Russia has benefited under the bilateral arms control regime with the United States. One of the resulting advantages to Russia is the prestige it acquired as an equal competitor to the United States. 16 Russia, which repeatedly violated arms control treaties, resists being treated as a rogue state and intends to neutralize the political and moral superiority of the United States. Also advantageous to Russia is selective compliance with some arms control agreements, which allowed the country to obtain military gains, such as developing and deploying banned weapons systems (e.g., the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile). 17 Through these acts of noncompliance, Russia has strengthened its deterrence posture at the non-strategic level.

2. Current Issues Concerning Nuclear Arms Control

(1) Two-Peer-Competitor Issue and Strategic Asymmetry

The situation in which the United States faces nuclear challenges at the same time from Russia and China significantly complicates nuclear arms control and strategic stability. A consensus on the stability of the traditional bipolar structure centered around US-Russian deterrence will be nullified by the emergence of China as a major nuclear power. This change will complicate the strategic calculus. The United States will have to maintain a credible deterrence against Russia and China. Moreover, if the United States, Russia, and China were to engage in arms control negotiations, any agreement between the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals could be exploited by China for expanding its nuclear capabilities.

Moreover, the United States, Russia, and China define different strategic objectives concerning the geographic areas (the spheres of influence) in which they pursue their vital interests and the goals they set; in other words, they act under different utility functions. 18 Should the utility functions of strategy differ between the three major powers holding different strategic outlooks, the threshold for nuclear use will also differ between them. A nuclear policy that assumes their limited nuclear use would also affect the conventional idea of strategic stability, which accepted mutual vulnerability and defined stability depending on equilibrium at the "strategic level."

If a conflict between two adversaries—China and the United States in this case—escalates over their core strategic interests at a regional level, the United States will regard it as a non-strategic regional conflict rather than one that threatens the survival of the nation, whereas China will consider it as a war critical to its survival. If this is the case, China will be moved by an incentive to attempt to break the status quo, regardless of the disparity with the United States in nuclear capabilities at the strategic level. Furthermore, China possesses more than 1,500 ground-launched medium-range missiles, boasting an overwhelming advantage over Japan and the United States as far as this type of weapon is concerned. The warfighting capability gap at the regional level in favor of China will further enhance its incentive to break the status quo at the same level. As a result, deterrence relying on US nuclear weapons will likely fail.

Therefore, rather than relying on nuclear deterrence alone, a tailored deterrence and strategic stability suited to the regional strategic environment will be required, with an emphasis on damage limitation through employing missile defense and high-tech conventional forces. 19 In addition, such a deterrence system will take the form of "integrated deterrence" that integrates diverse capabilities—nuclear, conventional, and cyber.

Such a "tailored" and integrated approach could provide a foundation for envisioning arms control with China. However, given a trilateral relationship between the United States, Russia, and China and a cross-regional nuclear order, conditions should be set for a formula of stability by taking into account cross-regional situations and crises spanning from Europe to East Asia or from East Asia to South Asia, in addition to asymmetry in strategic objectives.

To achieve both dominance and stability, the United States needs to develop a "theory of victory" that ensures effective deterrence at the theater level and advantages in strategic-level escalation management without escalating conflicts into an all-out war. 20 The pursuit of a "theory of victory" by the United States means to China that the country will be forced to accept unilateral vulnerability. The acceptance of the unilateral superiority of the United States or its unilateral vulnerability amid strategic competition will make it impossible for China to build a stable strategic relationship with the United States.

(2) Emerging, Declining, and Status Quo Powers

Asymmetry in strategic great-power relations also concerns "prospects" for the future power balance between major powers.

Arms control is a measure that seeks stability in relations between major powers, and, to this end, it establishes a mutual understanding, quantitative or qualitative, that their military power is in a state of equilibrium. This means maintaining the status quo over the medium to long term. However, in the absence of a common understanding or agreement on the future distribution of power, it is hard for major powers to regulate through arms control nuclear weapons or the cardinal element in shaping military and diplomatic power, and to agree on an equilibrium point at which to fix the distribution of power over the medium to long term.

In situations fraught with uncertainty, how do declining, emerging, and status quo countries at odds over potential losses and gains approach the topics of strategic stability and arms control? 21 Arguably, in periods of power transition, wars are more likely to erupt over changes in the distribution of gains. 22 Strongly moved by loss aversion, declining countries may take more risks to prevent further losses. As a consequence, those countries choose more aggressive and unpredictable behavior. In addition, declining countries will resist arms control measures that help downgrade their position; they will not agree to renegotiations disadvantageous to them under any existing arms control regime.

Emerging countries, if satisfied with the status quo and finding themselves in the domain of gains, may avoid risks and be unlikely to break through the status quo. However, if they do not appreciate the rules and profit sharing the current order dictates, they will be motivated by an incentive to seek changes. 23

Status quo countries, on the other hand, will try to curb the rise of emerging countries to protect their own interests as long as they judge that the status quo meets their interests. Let the United States be a status quo power, Russia as a declining power, and China as a rising power (revisionist power); it is not easy for them to agree on an arms control framework designed to fix the distribution of power because they hold different prospects for the future distribution of power.

The outlook for the "distribution of power" among the three superpowers is unforeseeable, and there is no prospect at this moment that their relationships, friendly or hostile, will be fixed in the medium to long term.

(3) Arms Control as a Platform for Superpower Competition

Arms control regimes regulate strategic competition among the major powers concerned. They not only set the rules of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, but they also served as an arena for political gamesmanship to involve other countries.

In the Cold War trilateral relationship between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, the United States and the Soviet Union exploited arms control to, among other things, drive a wedge into each other's alignment with China. 24 In negotiating the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the Soviet Union sought to internationally isolate China, opposing the nuclear test ban, by rallying as many countries as possible to join the PTBT. The Soviet design was to check China, which, at the time, parted company with Russia and proceeded with its nuclear buildup. The United States exploited the PTBT to aggravate the confrontation between China and the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union attended negotiations on the SALT I agreement to drive a wedge between China and the United States. The SALT I talks were aimed more than anything else at institutionalizing an equal relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union in the realm of strategic nuclear weapons. But from 1969 to 1972, the Soviet Union positioned the SALT I talks as part of its efforts to undermine the US-China relationship. US-Soviet arms control cooperation resulted from the SALT I talks (relatively) softened the US perception of the Soviet threat and procrastinated (though in a limited manner) further US-China rapprochement. The United States chose to cooperate with the Soviet Union avoiding a decisive confrontation with it.

These historical experiences are not directly applicable to today's politics. Nonetheless, such an interaction between major power strategic competition and arms control processes has important implications for stabilizing strategic relations and reducing risks.

China accuses the United States of bringing its political ideology into the realm of arms control and nonproliferation, employing various means to contain Russia and China and increasing the risk of an arms race. 25 Meanwhile, China persistently maintains its position of not attending an arms control dialogue with the United States until its nuclear arsenal is on par with those of the United States and Russia.

Some estimates say that China will rapidly increase the number of nuclear warheads to 1,000 by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035, which would bring China into numerical parity with the United States and Russia. However, when it comes to arms control with China, the focus should shift away from the number of nuclear weapons toward their technologically advanced delivery systems that are hard for the US alert infrastructure to detect. Additionally, attention should be given to China's non-nuclear strategic capabilities. 26

Negotiations over a successor treaty to the New START are not merely diplomatic talks on arrangements for nuclear balance between the United States, Russia, and China, but they also have political implications that define the great power competition. China and Russia share common concerns about countering US dominance. But their geopolitical concerns differ over: China's ambitions for the Russian Far East and Central Asia; the nuclear balance between the two countries; and their position in the bilateral strategic partnership. Moreover, unlike during the Cold War, current China-Russia relations are converging. In October 2020, President Putin suggested the possibility of a China-Russia alliance but emphasized at the same time that it is not essential based on overall considerations. 27

Russia's aggression in Ukraine could change the relationship between the two countries. In particular, the attrition of Russia's conventional forces and economic slowdown, combined with China's nuclear buildup, could define the dynamics between the two countries.

From the US perspective, the growing Chinese nuclear threat could justify not extending the New START. But at the same time, this could mean losing the last resort and hurting cooperation and dialogue in US-Russian security. In other words, the abrogation of the New TART would drive Russia further to the Chinese side and encourage them to perceive the United States as their common adversary. Any attempt to worsen the differences between China and Russia would only promote their alignment and strengthen their affinity. Nevertheless, China's trend of nuclear buildup constitutes a concern not only for the United States but also for Russia and may hinder the deepening of the China-Russia "alliance."

3. How to Manage Emerging Technologies

Emerging technologies such as hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), artificial intelligence (AI), remote sensing, and autonomous technologies will have a significant impact on strategic stability among major nuclear powers. This means that those technologies will complicate arms control efforts. Conventional arms control has focused on limiting the number and types of weapons systems. Yet, if emerging technologies became integrated into strategic stability, we would be obliged to regulate the specific capabilities and use of these technologies. In that case, it would be hard to define "strategic stability" objectively or quantitatively. This would mean that arms control, which bears a sufficiently political character, will become even more highly politicized; in other words, the institutional stability of arms control will be difficult to maintain.

The entanglement of nuclear, conventional, and cyber domains 28 is an element that makes it difficult to create a mutual understanding of strategic stability and complicates the design of arms control regimes. The main issues related to strategic stability (i.e., deterrence relationships) are as follows.

First, the impact of cross-domain entanglement leading to misunderstanding and miscalculation. The interaction of nuclear, conventional, and cyber capabilities increases the likelihood of misinterpreting military actions and intentions. For example, cyber attacks will likely disrupt the chain of command, making it impossible for the attacked party to make appropriate decisions and transmit instructions. The perception of this heightened uncertainty may cause psychological pressure capable of thwarting accurate decision-making. This could lead to unintended escalation, such as misunderstanding a conventional military operation as a nuclear attack and, as a result, unleashing a disproportionate response. 29 A malfunction caused by cyber attacks on the nuclear command and control system could also cause accidental escalation.

Second, the ambiguity of "deterrence." Under a situation where nuclear, conventional, and cyber capabilities are operational, as a whole, as an integrated deterrent, the boundary between conventional and nuclear deterrence may be blurred. HGVs, for example, can travel at extremely high speeds over Mach 5, follow unpredictable flight paths, and penetrate missile defense systems. Their speed and maneuverability will make a successful first strike with high probability, potentially upsetting the balance of deterrence, creating a "use it or lose it" psychology on the part of adversaries, and increasing the risk of a nuclear conflict.

Offensive cyber operations may be regarded as escalated measures capable of undermining the credibility and predictability of deterrence strategies. Attacks on critical infrastructure or cyber attacks against nuclear forces' chain of command―otherwise considered relatively low-intensity attacks―may lead to a major crisis at a higher strategic level. This is a window of vulnerability that suddenly appears at a higher level of the escalation ladder and is referred to as a wormhole escalation. 30

Third, the influence of cross-domain entanglement on decision-making systems. Positive expectations of AI technology in nuclear deterrence are: AI will enhance decision-making capabilities in terms of quality and speed, automate weapons capabilities, improve intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and help build more reliable early warning systems. Some believe that AI will reduce the risk of human error in decision-making and increase the efficiency of threat detection.

Meanwhile, the risks associated with AI are equally significant: an overdependence on automated systems and an increased risk of unintended conflict due to misjudgment and misinformation committed by AI. AI also raises concerns about the "speed of war": AI-assisted nuclear command, control, and communications systems will surely curtail the time required for decision-making; but that also means reducing the time allocated for "judgment." As a result, humans may not be allowed sufficient time to intervene in a crisis. The question of to what extent AI should be involved in nuclear decision-making systems will be a point of contention in any discussion of "strategic stability." 31

Remote sensing technology, used with AI technology, could provide timely, detailed, and (probably) accurate information for assessing an adversary's nuclear capabilities and for evaluating its intentions utilizing data on military force deployment and movement. Improved knowledge could increase transparency and reduce misperceptions and misunderstandings. On the other hand, superior remote sensing capabilities acquired by a warring country might threaten the survivability of its adversary's nuclear arsenal and undermine the delicate balance of deterrence.

Therefore, when envisioning arms control, the blurring of lines between nuclear, conventional, and cyber weapons can cause problems in defining and categorizing these weapons that arms control regimes should regulate; it can also make it hard to establish clear parameters for agreements or arrangements. In this intricate setting, it is vital to take into account the difficulties in maintaining agreed-upon definitions and standards.


Kissinger once noted: whether a stronger power is "restrained from exerting its full potential" in a great power conflict, i.e., whether it limits the military conflict to localized warfare and desists from escalating it to an all-out war, depends on "moral, political, or strategic considerations." 32 The United States, Russia, and China find it difficult to clearly define and agree upon deterrence (or "strategic stability") and an appropriate, stable modality of arms control that sustains it institutionally―due to differences in strategic objectives; differences in military assets required to endorse and achieve those strategic objectives; entanglement of strategic and non-strategic levels; and entanglement between nuclear, conventional, and new domains. For this reason, it is not easy for them to reach a consensus on weapons systems and regulatory approaches that should be most emphasized in arms control.

Under these circumstances, it is necessary to consider an approach different from conventional arms control negotiations. If it is hard to reach a rational agreement on strategic considerations of the three considerations mentioned by Kissinger, a crisis will have to be managed by political and moral considerations. In other words, until it becomes possible to reduce risks by ensuring the stability of strategic superpower relations and the predictability of each power's behavior through the institution of arms control, we will have no option but to adopt, as crisis management measures, soft approaches such as confidence-building measures, the activation of crisis management and communication mechanisms, and the formation of new norms and rules for responsible nuclear behavior (including an application of AI) with increased transparency.

Nobumasa Akiyama is Professor of Hitotsubashi University.

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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