The Biden administration's renewal of New START, the strategic arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia, has drawn barely a yawn in Asia. That should surprise no one. Asia has long been marginal to a nuclear balance of power long defined by U.S. and Soviet (later Russian) arsenals.
It's not just in Asia, of course, that interest in U.S.-Russian arms control has declined since the end of the Cold War. The sense of a perpetual confrontation between the two Cold War superpowers that could escalate into a nuclear catastrophe at a moment's notice has eased. Even in Washington, nuclear arms control is no longer the all-consuming political preoccupation it once was. It is now a boutique issue in U.S. political discourse.
In Asia, the main strategic concern is about coping with China's rapidly rising military power and Beijing's demonstrated political will to deploy it to its advantage in the region. This overshadows any marginal Asian interest in U.S.-Russian arms control and sends an important message to the Biden administration: Nuclear arms are, at most, only a subset of a much larger strategic picture. And the strategic, political picture must precede arms control.
Although China has had nuclear missiles since 1964, its arsenal had little impact on the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Beijing also sensibly avoided playing the kind of nuclear numbers game into which Washington and Moscow were locked. Instead, China limited itself to a small, minimum deterrent that stayed in the low hundreds of warheads—even as Washington and Moscow built thousands of nuclear weapons.
Washington and Moscow learned to live with Chinese nuclear weapons. They were also happy to bring Beijing into the nonproliferation framework to limit the spread of these weapons to other countries. Together, they worked to mobilize the widest possible support for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and get countries with nuclear capabilities to formally renounce nuclear weapons.
As with Germany, the United States and Russia had a special interest in keeping Japan nonnuclear. In both Europe and Asia, the United States offered to extend its nuclear umbrella to protect its closest allies, which were in the line of fire from the Soviet Union.
Now, this decades-old framework has broken down in the face of profound changes in U.S. domestic politics affecting nuclear arms control, as well as geopolitical turmoil in Asia.
Two major problems stand out. The first is a chicken-and-egg question that has dogged arms control from the beginning of the nuclear age: Should the regulation of nuclear weapons, which pose such a fundamental threat to national and global security, take precedence over reducing the political conflicts that drive such an arms race in the first place?
The initial U.S. consensus that arms control helps improve trust and reduce conflict between the superpowers did not last long. By the time Washington and Moscow moved from the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), concluded in 1972, to SALT II in 1979, there was a domestic U.S. political revolt against the nuclear talks. While Democrats insisted that nuclear arms control was a virtue in itself, a large section of the Republican Party argued that the exclusive focus on the nuclear question masked the far more threatening challenges arising from the nature of the Soviet system itself and Moscow's expansionism around the world.
C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India's National Security Advisory Board.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.