By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have an opportunity this week to push for deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals, a step which could help persuade China to back away from an arms race, the head of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign group said on Monday.
Despite well-publicised friction between the U.S. and Russian leaders meeting on Wednesday in Geneva, Beatrice Fihn, head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said she believed it was possible that it could mark a "turning point" and yield a pledge for new nuclear arms talks.
In February, the United States and Russia extended the New START arms control treaty for five years, preserving the last treaty limiting deployments of the world's two largest strategic nuclear arsenals.
"There is not a huge sense of expectations of something radical, a strong commitment. But I really do think that it is a possibility to lay out the beginning of a process to negotiate new reductions," Fihn said in an interview at ICAN offices, where a framed copy of its 2017 Nobel award is displayed.
"I think that this meeting could hopefully, for the safety of the world, be a turning point and the start of a process to really pull us back from this very dangerous position we are in right now."
The 2010 New START treaty limits the two countries to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each and imposes restrictions on the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them.
"These two countries, they hold over 90% of the world's (nuclear) arsenals. These two individuals basically have the ability to end the world as we know it," Fihn said. "What is important is that there is an ambition expressed to reach zero and start chipping away at the nuclear arsenals."
The last decade has seen huge modernisation and upgrades of U.S. and Russian nuclear programmes, with new types of nuclear weapons, which play an increased role in the two powers' security policies, she said.
Fihn noted that Britain announced in March that it will grow its nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40%.
"China has also increased its nuclear arsenals. Now they are still very small in comparison to the U.S. and Russia," she said.
"So I think an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to start negotiating nuclear disarmament reductions would really put a lot of pressure on China, on the U.K., on France to also come to the table and provide some evidence or progress towards their commitment to disarmament."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, nuclear-armed states spent $72.6 billion on such weapons in 2020, little changed from 2019, according to an ICAN report issued last week. The United States accounted for more than half of that spending, with China second.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)