Decoding the Latest U.S. Report on Arms Control: Are Russia and China Really Cheating?

On April 15, 2020, the State Department released the executive summary for the 2020 Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, more commonly known as the Compliance Report.

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The recently-released unclassified executive summary is an abbreviated version of the congressionally mandated annual report on “Adherence to And Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, And Disarmament Agreements and Commitments”—commonly referred to as the Compliance Report. Per the 1961 Arms Control and Disarmament Act, the State Department must submit to Congress the U.S. government’s assessment of the compliance and adherence to “arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and related commitments . . . including confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) . . . and the Missile Technology Control Regime,” by April 15 of each year.

The 2019 report was the subject of significant controversy and disagreement, both publicly and privately. The original unclassified report issued in April 2019 came under fire for its highly politicized tone and disproportionate Iran focus rather than providing the far more technical and intelligence-based compliance assessments of prior years. A completely revised version, far more in line with the tone and content of prior years, was reissued in August 2019. The executive summary of the 2020 Compliance Report suggests a return to the more careful, technical approach to compliance of previous years, highlighting a number of areas of concern across a range of arms control and nonproliferation obligations. In particular, the executive summary carefully delineates between findings of noncompliance with legal obligations, issues of “adherence” with political commitments, and descriptions of areas of concern for which actual determinations of compliance or adherence cannot be made. Of note, most of the nuclear testing-related findings involving China discussed in recent media reports fall into this latter category. It remains to be seen if the full report will include more elaborated and detailed findings in this or other areas covered in the summary.

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