Why US-Russia row over INF Treaty may just be a smokescreen

February 22, 2019 11:23
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi speaks during Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany on Feb 16. Photo: Reuters

During the 3-day Munich Security Conference over the last weekend, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi said that China, as a founding member of the United Nations and a permanent member on the UN Security Council, has remained a steadfast supporter of multilateralism.

Nevertheless, Yang also stressed that while Beijing is willing to do everything it can to promote multinationalism on the world scene, it draws the line at getting incorporated into the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (or the “INF Treaty”) signed between the US and the former Soviet Union back in the 1980s.

The idea of China being brought into an expanded version of the pact had been proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel against the backdrop of the recent decision made by US President Donald Trump to withdraw his country from the INF Treaty on the grounds that Russia has violated it in the first place.

Merkel noted that Germany would definitely welcome it if a new treaty on constraining the development of intermediate-range ballistic missiles is negotiated between the US, Russia, Europe and China.

The INF Treaty was concluded between then US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev back in 1987, under which both Washington and Moscow agreed to eliminate all land-based ballistic missiles with striking ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers in their arsenals.

However, recently Trump announced that he is determined to pull the US out of the treaty, and the Russians responded quickly that if the Americans do so regardless, they would drop out of the pact as well.

What is truly intriguing about the saga is that while on the surface, the US and Russia seem to be lambasting each other for their alleged failure to honor the INF Treaty, it appears there is a delicate and unspoken understanding between Washington and Moscow that if they are to hammer out new rules for the nuclear game in the coming days, China must be brought to the negotiation table as well.

It is because after the INF Treaty was signed, China has remained the only nuclear power on earth that is still developing and stockpiling intermediate-range ballistic missiles that are armed either with nuclear or conventional warheads, such as the DF-26, which can strike Japan, Guam and of course, Taiwan.

Earlier, Trump declared in his State of the Union address that while Washington is dropping out of the INF Treaty due to repeated violations by Russia, he is willing to negotiate a new agreement with countries including China on restricting the development and deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Trump’s suggestion was echoed by Vladimir Shamanov, head of the State Duma defense committee of Russia, who claimed that Moscow had started proposing a new treaty on intermediate-range ballistic missiles that applies to other nuclear powers such as China a long time ago.

In other words, as we can see, the ongoing spat between the US and Russia over whether to scrap the INF Treaty or not might just be a carefully perpetrated smokescreen to hide their secret and shared agenda of containing China.

It is estimated that China currently has around 2,000 land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles in active service. Once Beijing becomes a signatory of a new multilateral missile treaty, it may have to decommission and destroy some 95 percent of all of these missiles.

That being said, it is almost for certain that China won’t yield to international pressure over the matter. And, as a form of counter-measure, Beijing may step up efforts at urging both Washington and Moscow to stick to the existing INF Treaty.

Nonetheless, as Trump is determined to go to any lengths to curb the rise of China, one can expect that he would have a series of follow-up plans up his sleeve to bring Beijing into line.

To do that, there are indeed at least three options on the table for President Trump. First, he can deploy newly-built intermediate-range missiles to Japan and South Korea once the restrictions imposed by the INF Treaty are lifted.

Second, Washington can use the ongoing Sino-US trade war as a leverage to force Beijing into accepting multilateralism in the name of “keeping world peace”.

Then finally, the US can use arms sales to Taiwan as a bargaining chip to force China to the negotiation table over restricting intermediate-range missiles.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 18

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal