China's Yang Jiechi speaks at the Munich Security Conference on February 16. Beijing sees the INF treaty as unfair given most of its missiles are land-based. Photo: AFP / Thomas Kienzle

China has dismissed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposal to “multilateralize” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, whose survival is threatened by apparently irreconcilable geostrategic differences between the United States and Russia.

The bilateral arms control pact, which the US and the Soviet Union inked in 1987, prevents the two countries from manufacturing and deploying land-based missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The Chinese have made it clear that they do not intend to reduce their arsenal of medium- and intermediate-range projectiles, saying it would unfairly weaken China’s defenses.

What they have not said, however, is that their participation in negotiations on a new, expanded INF agreement could also go against the one-China principle – that there is only one China, and Taiwan must be part of it.

Expanding the treaty

US President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that his country would pull out of the INF treaty in six months unless the Russians stopped violating it. The US government accuses Russia of producing and installing the Novator 9M729 land-based cruise missile, which exceeds the INF limitations.

The Kremlin denied any violation and replied that it would withdraw from the treaty in six months as well. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the US has violated the INF legal framework by positioning Aegis Ashore anti-missile batteries in Romania. Moscow says this system has a launcher that can fire both interceptors and Tomahawk intermediate missiles.

Demonstrators pose as Russian leader Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump face off with model rockets in a square in Berlin amid debate over the demise of the INF treaty. Photo: AFP / Paul Zinken / Dpa

Merkel launched the idea of a global arms control deal last week, during the annual Munich Security Conference. She said the INF treaty’s demise could spark a new arms race. In her opinion, China should be part of a new agreement, given its growing missile might.

Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi was quick to reject Merkel’s suggestion. He said in Munich that China’s missiles were defensive in nature and did not pose a threat to any other nation.

Yang’s argument was backed up by retired Chinese general Yao Yunzhu at the same venue. Yao noted that China was a continental power and most of its strike capability was land-based, while the US and Russia had an incomparable advantage with their air- and sea-launched missiles. She said that her country’s signing of a multilateral INF deal would create a big asymmetry in capacities – to China’s detriment.

The Chinese state tabloid Global Times was adamant that “although China is now much stronger than it was in the past, its nuclear power and comprehensive military strength are far from being equal to those of the US.” In other words, the Chinese believe they cannot hold negotiations on the INF issue on an equal basis with Washington (and Moscow).

For Trump, the INF treaty favors China, which has a significant arsenal of medium-range and intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles.

Negotiating with Taiwan?

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said recently that while the current INF arrangement had to be preserved, the international community should look into possible ways to strengthen and expand it.

A Nato source told Asia Times that the alliance saw reasons to try to broaden the INF treaty to include more actors, because since the agreement was signed over 30 years ago, many countries had heavily invested in medium-range and intermediate-range platforms. Aside from China, countries such as India, Pakistan and Iran were developing and deploying INF assets.

Taiwan has positioned or is developing ground-based missiles covered by the INF treaty too. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Hsiung Feng IIE land-attack cruise missile has a range of 600 kilometers. The island is also producing a variant of this projectile, the Hsiung Feng IIER, that can hit a target as far as 1,250 km away.

Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology is also said to be working on a surface-to-surface, supersonic cruise missile. The Yun Feng is believed to have a range between 1,200 and 2,000 km.

Concentrating resources on missile development, the island is improving its ability to strike targets deep into mainland China, also making it a legitimate stakeholder in any possible multilateral debate about the reduction of medium- and intermediate-range projectiles.

This is obviously unacceptable to China, which regards the island as a rebel province and has not ruled out retaking it by force in the future. Indeed, Chinese leaders will never sit with their Taiwanese counterparts at the same table discussing a multilateral arms treaty (or any other international issue), because it would be equivalent to diplomatic recognition.

Against this backdrop, it seems quite evident that any attempt to save the INF pact by involving China is a non-starter.

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