U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on June 14, 2018. [State Department photo]
How the Arms Trade Treaty has influenced the US-China diplomatic chessboard

Almost four years into its term, the Trump administration continues to abandon international security agreements at a dizzying clip. These actions are providing China with the perfect opportunity to fill the vacuum left by collapsing American leadership.

Two days prior to the June U.S.-Russia strategic dialogue, China’s top legislative body voted in favor of joining a treaty that President Trump had unsigned in flamboyant fashion more than a year ago. The little-known Arms Trade Treaty sought to set a minimum standard for arms exports and raise international arms trade practices closer to the U.S. standard, an obvious “win” for the United States. Unregulated arms transfers to high-conflict zones intensify and prolong conflict, and also make it more dangerous for international aid organizations to provide humanitarian assistance. The ATT simply seeks to establish international norms to stop such transfers and promote accountability in the global arms trade.

In an adept reading of the geopolitical room, China declared its intention to join the ATT from the same U.N. podium that the United States announced its withdrawal back in 2019. China’s arms control guru, Fu Cong, highlighted the further “coincidence” that China acceded to the ATT on the same day that President Trump withdrew from the World Health Organization, July 6. The split-screen characterization was striking: China is taking the reins while the Trump administration surrenders hard-won U.S. moral authority.

President Trump’s withdrawal doctrine is not only damaging U.S. security, but it is presenting China opportunities to isolate and weaken the United States. A different approach could have also given the United States more options for dealing with challenges posed by Iran.

U.S. withdrawal from the ATT

President Trump chose to pander and advance the National Rifle Association’s false narrative that the ATT could lead international bureaucrats to regulate gun trade in America. The charade turned to political theater when he unsigned the United States from the ATT at a raucous NRA rally.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has since observed that “[t]he treaty does not affect sales or trade in weapons among private citizens within a country,” countering President Trump, John Bolton and the NRA’s claims that the ATT would infringe on Americans’ constitutional Second Amendment rights or create a “national gun registry.” In fact, the ATT seeks only to regulate the murky international arms trade. Illicit arms have caused the deaths of Americans in countries around the world.

This harsh reality was a major driver behind the U.S. push for the treaty in the first place. U.S. leaders wanted to constrain other countries’ arms trade practices using the tools already being used at home. China’s accession to the ATT is an opportunity to improve and expand U.S. models of behavior, but instead, the Trump administration has demonized the architecture regulating the $95 billion global arms trade and even seeks to bypass congressional oversight of foreign arms sales to conflict zones. Further, the Trump administration appears to have ignored a key security benefit that would come from broader membership in the ATT.

The limits on Iranian arms trade may soon lift

Iran’s accession to the treaty could have played a valuable role in mitigating the United States’ concerns about the scheduled expiration of a U.N. conventional arms embargo in October 2020. Finding a lack of international support to extend it, the Trump administration is now lashing out and threatening a crisis at the U.N. Security Council over the “snapback” mechanism in the Iran nuclear deal. Attempting to unilaterally “snapback” all previous UNSC sanctions resolutions on Iran without a firm legal basis to do so could do serious damage to the credibility of the UNSC and future nonproliferation agreements.

Despite its attempts to prevent the adoption of the ATT in 2013, Tehran was looking for ways to re-join the international community after signing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The United States could have used the past five years to urge Tehran to review its position and join the ATT, which could have gone a long way to cooling the region’s many high-conflict zones including in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. 

As part of a gradual path to ATT accession, Iran could recommence submitting reports to the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms, which it has not done since 1998. However, regional accession would be necessary to pull the Middle East’s arms trade out of the shadows and to reduce Iran’s reliance on proxies. With the ATT having entered into force for over 100 countries, the Middle East is nearly absent with Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and others missing. Mirroring accession by Iran’s rivals could bolster stability and create space for a larger regional arms control regime.

China seizes an opportunity

As Trump focuses on domestic politics, China is turning its attention to world affairs. However symbolic, China’s accession to the ATT received cheers and a call from the European Union for “major arms exporters” to join the treaty, a potential shot across the bow at the United States.

Further, regulated arms trade between China and Iran takes on new importance as the two pursue a 25-year agreement that will likely cover energy, infrastructure, and military cooperation among other things. This potential agreement will be viewed skeptically by the United States, but the circumstances depict the United States as the irresponsible actor and China as upholding international best practices. Indeed, China’s domestic policies now require the recipient government to not transfer arms imported from China to any third party without prior consent; undermining another claim Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has heaved at Iran.

An abrogation of global leadership

President Trump’s actions have come back to haunt him, with China using the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the ATT as ammunition on the global stage. Rather than alienating our closest allies and feeding our adversaries, the United States could have used the ATT to address its problems with Iran. The missed opportunity to engage Iran in discussions on its regional activities — an opportunity made possible by the Iran nuclear deal — ultimately led to the current crisis at the UNSC.

On a more positive note, China’s inclusion in the ATT signals there could be opportunities to expand current treaties and agreements with our competitors and to influence their behavior. As China takes on more global responsibility, there may be renewed impetus to talk to China about the Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.

If the Trump administration is truly interested in pulling China into broader agreements to constrain weapons proliferation, it should also learn to read the room. By rejoining the ATT and engaging China in areas where it seems more comfortable, the United States could once again become a global leader on threat reduction.