The answer to the above question comes down to one word: China.
U.S. envoy Marshall Billingslea is, rather belatedly, making enthusiastic sounds about arms control talks to be held with Russia later this month. The talks are scheduled for June 22 in Vienna. The Kremlin has confirmed the venue and discussions, with deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov representing the Russian side.
On announcing the June 22 meeting with Russia, Billingslea showed an unseemly haste to link the event to the possibility of China also attending. “China also invited. Will China show and negotiate in good faith?” he added.
That sounds odd, if not inappropriate. The talks are supposed to be bilateral efforts by the world’s foremost nuclear powers to get down to serious negotiations on global security. After all, the U.S. and Russia possess over 90 per cent of the world’s total number of warheads. Why the haste by the U.S. side to get China involved at this stage?
The U.S. envoy sounds more like a dodgy salesman than a principled negotiator on arms control. Billingslea’s career history as an accused advocate of torture techniques under President GW Bush and his stint at the Treasury with responsibility for imposing sanctions on other nations does not inspire confidence that he has expertise in arms control issues nor has serious scruples about advancing global peace.
From previous announcements by the Trump administration, it is clear that the real U.S. aim is to use the talks with Russia as a way to rope China into trilateral arms control. This is hardly the spirit of trust and genuine negotiations.
The Trump administration has been abandoning nuclear security treaties with gusto. Last month it walked away from the Open Skies Treaty. In 2018, it ditched the international nuclear accord with Iran, and last year binned the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The latter step gravely undermines security architecture in Europe. The American side disingenuously accused Russia of breaching the INF, but it has since become clear that Washington wanted out of that treaty in order to have a free hand to confront China with short and medium-range missiles.
Under Trump, the U.S. has promoted the endeavor to weaponize outer space in violation of an existing United Nations’ treaty.
His administration has also adopted a mercurial, non-committed attitude towards the New START accord governing long-range nuclear warheads. Despite repeated appeals from Moscow for clarity, the U.S. side has demurred on whether it will extend the treaty which is due to expire in February 2021. If START is abandoned – the last remaining arms control treaty – then there is a real danger of a new global arms race being unleashed.
The U.S., it seems, is using veiled threats of leaving New START as a leverage point on Russia to corral China. Such a negotiating ploy shows a reckless, gambling disregard for global security and peace. It also illustrates a total lack of integrity and principle.
For its part, China this week said it has no intention of joining trilateral talks in Vienna. Beijing points out that its nuclear arsenal is a fraction of those belonging to the U.S. and Russia. It is up to Washington and Moscow to first drastically reduce their nuclear inventories before Beijing is obligated to join wider efforts for disarmament.
“We noticed that the United States has been dragging China into the issue…whenever it is raised, with the intention of deviating from its responsibility,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Given the relentless vilification of China by the Trump administration over the Covid-19 pandemic, trade and cybersecurity, Hua rightly added that Washington’s claims to want to negotiate in good faith seem “extremely ridiculous and even surreal”.
Russia’s envoy Sergei Ryabkov has cautiously welcomed the Vienna meeting, but it is noticeable that Moscow is keeping expectations low key. Ryabkov ruled out Moscow being used in any way to put pressure on China to become involved in trilateral discussions. He said Russia “respects” China’s position.
The Russian diplomat also made a valid point about the incongruity of American demands for China to join arms limitations at this stage while the U.S. makes no such demands on its allies, Britain and France. Both of these NATO members have nuclear arsenals of 200-300 warheads, which is approximately the same as China’s. The U.S. and Russia each have a total stockpile of 6,000 warheads, according to a 2019 tally made by the Arms Control Association. If China is to be included in arms limitation negotiations, then why shouldn’t the same obligation be made on Britain and France?
There’s a discernible lack of credibility about the U.S. side in its present approach to global nuclear security. On one hand, it is tearing up treaties, as well as ramping up military forces in Russia’s Arctic region and in the South China Sea. Yet now the other hand is being extended in a supposed willingness to negotiate on arms control with Russia in a bilateral forum which it wants opened up to include China.
In the interests of diplomacy and keeping communication lines open, Russia is participating in the talks in Vienna. Regrettably, however, the words and deeds so far from the Trump administration do not augur well for substantive achievement.
Unfortunately, there is little sign of genuine desire for arms control by the American side. Its conduct is one of pursuing an ulterior agenda and exploiting nuclear fears for its own selfish geopolitical gain regarding China. That’s not a premise for progress.