This year’s Munich Security Conference, 55th in the series which ended last weekend, was notable for the divisions on display: between the U.S. and Europe, between the Europeans themselves (witness French President Emmanuel Macron cancelling a joint appearance with Germany’s Angela Merkel after a fallout over energy policy), and then there was Brexit-headed Britain torn internally.
But there was a surprise element: Angela Merkel turning to China to save the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty! Signed in 1987 by the U.S. and former Soviet Union, the INF along with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had once marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The treaty had banned deployment of land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km, bringing peace for America’s European allies paranoid about the overwhelming Soviet military presence right next door in East Berlin and stretching all across central and east Europe.
But the U.S. and its European allies have been suspicious of Russia’s adherence to the INF treaty; they have accused it of cheating and in particular claim that its 9M729 nuclear-capable cruise missile and its variants violate it as these can strike any part of Europe without much warning. U.S. President Donald Trump had been persistently accusing Russia of such violations since October and last month served formal notice to Russia to withdraw from the INF treaty by the middle of this year.
As for China’s response to Chancellor Merkel’s suggestion, its seniormost diplomat, former foreign minister and current Politburo member and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, declined to take the bait that China join efforts to save the INF Treaty. Yang responded to Merkel’s request with his stoic reiteration of China’s standard position that its nuclear capabilities are “strictly defensive” in nature and that “we are against the multilateralisation of the INF Treaty”.
So what made Merkel do it and why did China reject the offer? Did Merkel see in China’s rising and novel power profile a potential “benefactor” or was she acting as facilitator for China’s itch to expand beyond its much celebrated role in the Six Party Talks where, since 2003, the U.S. for the first time outsourced to China the task of curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and their proliferation. If anything, that had only resulted in Pyongyang stepping up the development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
But in 2019 Merkel’s appeal to China did seem to set the cat amongst the pigeons. It showed how over a period of time China has evolved. The debate that Merkel’s appeal to China triggered heard alternative voices from other Chinese delegates attending the same forum. In a panel on nuclear arms control, retired major general of the People’s Liberation Army and former director of China-U.S. defence cooperation Yunzhu Yao was most prominent and she appeared hopeful. Yao said: “You still have more than five months to save the INF Treaty” and urged “Europeans to take up a leadership role in nuclear disarmament”. She underlined how China’s cautious approach flowed from its missiles being largely land-based and of the range that the INF Treaty seeks to eliminate. She said: “If China is to enter into these kinds of negotiations, I think it ought to be more comprehensive to include not only land-based but also air and sea-based strike capabilities…” though this “would be hugely complicated.” Xinhua had earlier quoted Prof Li Bin, a Chinese nuclear arms control specialist, saying: “Russia is not the major reason for the U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty; the United States itself is.” Other scholars also offered varying assessments on China taking the lead in nuclear disarmament.
Chancellor Merkel’s courting China, perhaps also signalled European acknowledgement of the depth of China’s influence over Russia, and how China’s presence in the INF negotiations could propitiate American concerns about Beijing’s military modernisation. So Merkel said: “Disarmament is something that concerns us all and we would, of course, be glad if such talks were held not just between the United States, Europe and Russia but also with China.”
But China remains far too closely tied to Russia to be acceptable to U.S. interlocutors. There’s also the fact that China’s nuclear track record remains at far greater disjunction to America’s own nuclear theologies to allow Beijing to take the lead in building any consensus on global nuclear disarmament; certainly not for saving the INF Treaty with just five months left for U.S. withdrawal. Therefore, like the ABM Treaty, the INF Treaty seems all set to be consigned to the dustbin of history with dangerous strategic implications.
A quick look at China’s rather distinct nuclear track record would be relevant here. China was the first nuclear weapon state that chose to have a small nuclear arsenal of a few hundred weapons and adopted a minimum nuclear deterrence doctrine. It was the first to unilaterally declare a No-First Use policy, implying it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons and never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. It vowed never to extend its nuclear deterrence for the defence of any other country (as the U.S. did for its allies Japan, Korea, Germany).
While announcing their first atomic test in October 1964 China’s official statement read: “The development of nuclear weapons in China ensures its defense and the protection of the Chinese people… The Chinese government solemnly declares that at no time and under no circumstances will China be the first to use nuclear weapons.” Later, State Councillor Ji Pengfei further clarified how “The development of nuclear weapons by China is entirely for defense, for breaking the nuclear monopoly of the superpowers and for the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons.”
When it came to multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations, Beijing took an equally unique position: it will not participate in any global nuclear disarmament initiatives until the two superpowers had reduced their arsenals by 50 per cent. When starting from the early 1970s Moscow and Washington gradually managed to reduce their warheads from over 50,000 to just 3,500, China raised the bar to its participation insisting that they first undertake “substantial” reductions (implying 90 per cent reductions) in their existing nuclear arsenals.
But now a new assertive China has gradually unfolded a major military modernisation programme and at the October 2017 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping outlined a rather precise timeline with ambitious benchmarks for China’s military not just fighting but winning wars. This explains why rejecting Angela Merkel’s concerns that the collapse of the INF would unleash a nuclear arms race amongst China, Russia and the United States, Yang Jiechi underlined how joining the INF would impose unfair restrictions on China’s charted course of military modernisation.
As regards the U.S., way back in December 2001, President Ronald Reagan’s ambitious ‘Star Wars’ program of 1983—then justified by George W Bush in terms of building ballistic missile defence to protect the U.S. homeland from ‘rogue states’—had seen America’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Now in 2019, a rising China’s military modernisation is challenging U.S. leadership across the Asia-Pacific region. The expanding Sino-Russian defence cooperation has added to Washington’s concerns, hence President Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty may even trigger anti-China missile deployments.
The latest US intelligence report Worldwide Threat Assessment issued last month concludes that Russia and China are now “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s” when they were all fired up with the Comintern heralding a world communist revolution! With the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2010 also expiring in 2021, it will leave the field open for a no-holds-barred development, expansion and deployment of nuclear weapons.
In 2011, the current U.S. national security advisor John Bolton had penned an essay that said: “To reduce the threat of INF-range missiles, we must either expand the INF Treaty’s membership or abrogate it entirely so that we can rebuild our own deterrence capabilities.” Clearly, it is this neocon mindset that is guiding Trump’s approach towards nuclear disarmament. In this backdrop, even a tentative hint of American deployments to redress its threat perceptions from China, North Korea and Iran could trigger an Asian nuclear arms race with direct implications for New Delhi and Islamabad. But saving the INF Treaty will require all these nuclear capable states to become signatories, which seems an equally impossible task.
This means that China’s proverbial ‘indirect approach’ will continue to guide its piecemeal assertions of national rejuvenation. It will avoid any direct confrontation while keeping its distance from the INF and seek its opportunities as the U.S. preps for withdrawal from the treaty.
(The author is professor for diplomacy and disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal)
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