China, Russia Agree on Launch Notification

Luke Champlin

China and Russia signed an agreement Oct. 13 to notify each other of impending ballistic missile launches. The agreement was part of a large package of economic and political deals signed during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit with his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao. Putin called the agreement “a very important step towards enhancing mutual trust and strengthening our strategic partnership,” according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

This agreement would be the first of its kind between China and Russia. Li Daguang of China’s National Defense University said the agreement “shows the special relationship between the two the launches of ballistic missiles are core state secrets rarely disclosed with other countries,” according to the Chinese newspaper Global Times.

In an Oct. 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Pavel Podvig of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation praised the agreement for enhancing transparency between the two countries. Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, also welcomed the increased transparency. The pact “probably reflects a wish in both [countries] to avoid misunderstandings,” he said in an Oct. 27 e-mail.

The new pact is especially significant because China has traditionally avoided agreements, such as the Hague Code of Conduct, that affect its ballistic missile capabilities.

Prior to the agreement with Russia, China had not engaged in bilateral arms control measures with Russia or the United States. The official Chinese media took pains to distinguish the Chinese-Russian notification accord from “offensive agreements” in place between Russia and the United States, as the notification agreement does not limit the nuclear arsenal of either side.

The specific provisions of the new agreement have not been released. The agreement was signed by Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Kolmakov and Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army.

The new agreement builds on a precedent established by the first launch-notification regime concluded between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1971 at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). That accord, known as the Accidents Measures Agreement, required each side to notify the other in advance of missile launches that resulted in missiles traveling beyond the country’s borders. These measures were expanded by the 1988 Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement, which relied on Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers established in 1987 to exchange information in advance of all launches of ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

START further codified and expanded this regime by requiring the sides to provide telemetry data from every ICBM or SLBM launch. This notification system has served as a confidence-building measure intended to prevent an accidental nuclear exchange. The agreement between China and Russia apparently is intended to serve a similar function, as China continues to improve the range and capability of its ICBM force.