German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU Council. Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro Nogi

In a keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) on February 16, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said China should join efforts to save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, but the Asian power rejected such a call.

Early this month, US President Donald Trump suspended his country’s obligations under the INF and began the process of withdrawing from it, “which will be completed in six months unless Russia comes back into compliance by destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment.”

The landmark agreement, signed in 1987 by one of President Trump’s Republican predecessors, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the then communist-ruled Soviet Union, is a key arms-control agreement between the two countries (with former Soviet Union states Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan still abiding by its terms). It led to the elimination of thousands of land-based missiles with a range from 500 to 5,500 kilometers and remains the only live Cold War-era arms-control treaty that requires the US and Russia to refrain from developing or testing such missiles.

The main and explicit reason for Trump’s decision to abandon the milestone accord is that “for far too long, Russia has violated the [INF] Treaty with impunity.”

However, in a brief statement on Trump’s withdrawal of the treaty on February 1, the White House said the US president “is ensuring that [America’s] military is no longer disadvantaged by a treaty that – while once great – is now broken” and pointed out that “China and Iran, which are not parties to the Treaty, each possess more than 1,000 INF Treaty-range missiles.”

When he announced that he would leave the accord, Trump said, ‘If Russia’s doing it [developing new nuclear missiles] and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,’ and insisted that China should be included in such a treaty

In fact, last October, when he announced that he would leave the accord, Trump said, “If Russia’s doing it [developing new nuclear missiles] and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,” and insisted that China should be included in such a treaty.

Commenting on Trump’s remarks, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it was “totally wrong” for the US to cite China as a reason to pull out of the INF, warning: “Unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty will cause many negative effects.”

Mindful of all this, when addressing global leaders and officials gathered for the 55th MSC last week, including Yang Jiechi, the highest-ranking Chinese government official in the audience, Merkel said: “Disarmament is something that concerns us all and where we would of course be glad if such talks were held not just between the United States, Europe and Russia but also with China.”

In response, Yang, a member of the ruling Communist Party’s all-important Politburo and the director of the party’s Office of Foreign Affairs, who also made remarks at this year’s MSC, in which he hailed China’s multilateral approach to international affairs, refuted the claim that his country “is opposed to the multilateralization of the INF.”

In an editorial on February 17, the Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, China’s leading newspaper, said “Germany [is] wrong to involve China in INF,” claiming that “Merkel’s hasty call for Beijing is rather inappropriate. Her words disrespect China’s interests and wishes, and objectively encourage Washington to quit irresponsibly.”

Without doubt, China has every reason to object to Trump’s remarks and Merkel’s call.

In its updated report on China’s missile program and US withdrawal from the INF Treaty on February 4, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said that “remaining outside the pact has allowed China to rapidly expand its missile arsenal as part of a military strategy designed to counter US and allied military power in Asia.”

In fact, according to that report, which detailed how China’s rocket forces would be restricted if China adhered to the INF Treaty, “Since the mid-1990s, Beijing has built up the world’s largest and most diverse arsenal of ground-launched missiles.” What’s more, the document issued by the US congressional commission said, “China’s inventory contains more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, approximately 95% of which … would violate the INF Treaty if China were a signatory.”

Given such a reality, from an American, German and even international perspective, the appeal for China – a rising military superpower – to join disarmament efforts or participate in the INF is not “totally wrong,” “hasty” or “inappropriate”.

Though devoting fewer words to the Chinese threat than it does to Russia, the United States’ 2018 Nuclear Posture Review warily observes that China “is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces.” More precisely, the NPR warned, “Like Russia, China is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives while also modernizing its conventional military, challenging traditional US military superiority in the Western Pacific.”

From the American viewpoint, as its national security adviser John Bolton rightly pointed out, with China’s missile capabilities, there is now a “new strategic reality out there” and the 1987 agreement has now become outdated.

For European countries such as Germany, which have become more wary of the arms race among major powers and China’s ambitions, their call for Beijing to be involved in international disarmament efforts is also understandable and advisable.

This is simply because they rightly understand that a new international disarmament, which is essential for maintaining security in Europe and the world at large, can only be achieved if there is a broader treaty bringing in other military powers, notably China, the world’s second-biggest economy and military.

In fact, this is a rare area where Trump’s America and its European allies see eye to eye.

Since entering the White House, Trump has unilaterally withdrawn the US from a number of major international agreements. His unilateralism has invoked widespread condemnation, even from Washington’s key European allies, such as Germany. The trans-Atlantic drift under Trump was on full display at the 2019 MSC.

Yet while disputing with the Trump administration over almost all key economic and security issues, the US and its European allies share some common ground vis-à-vis China, including Beijing’s rapid weapons development.

The Global Times pointedly noted such a convergence. The Chinese state-run paper observed: “At the Munich Security Conference, Merkel and European countries criticized recent US security policies. But on the issue of the INF Treaty, Merkel snubbed China to serve US interests, reflecting the selfishness of Germans and some Europeans.”

Although in his remarks at the conference US Vice-President Mike Pence didn’t say anything about Merkel’s public invitation of China to join the pact, he must have been pleased with it. This is because by suggesting that disarmament efforts must include China, the German chancellor aligns with the United States’ concerns about China’s missile capabilities and ambitions.

Though they don’t publicly voice their views, other countries in Asia also certainly would like their giant neighbor to join an INF-like agreement.

In objecting to Merkel’s call for Beijing to join international disarmament efforts, Yang Jiechi reportedly claimed that “China develops its capabilities strictly according to its defensive needs and doesn’t pose a threat to anybody else.”

Like any country, China has the right to develop its own military capabilities according to its defensive needs. But what makes many regional countries wary, notably those that are locked in territorial disputes with China, is that Beijing may use its rapidly growing and increasingly powerful missiles to entrench its claims and actions in the disputed East and South China Seas.

For Taiwan, the democratically ruled island that Beijing regards as a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to take back, it is a nightmare that China is free to develop its lethal land-based missiles while the US, its key security partner and protector, is banned from doing so.

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