A puerile propaganda stunt pulled by U.S. negotiators in Vienna this week ahead of talks with Russian counterparts was both at insult to China and a reprehensible distraction from credible bilateral business with Moscow on the vital issue of strategic security.
Ahead of talks with Russian delegates, the Americans took a stealthy photo of the venue contriving to show Chinese flags sitting atop vacant tables.
U.S. envoy Marshall Billingslea then tried to twitter-shame China by declaring: “Vienna talks about to start. China is a no-show… We will proceed with Russia, notwithstanding.”
China had categorically stated several times over past weeks that it had no intention of attending the talks in Vienna which were designated anyway as bilateral discussions between Washington and Moscow on the future of arms control.
The Russian delegation was evidently blindsided by the PR stunt. Both China and Russia condemned the attempt by the American side to contrive Beijing as somehow derelict. China slammed it as “performance art”. While Russia published a photograph of the American and Russian delegates in discussions without any Chinese flags present.
The fiasco shows that the talks were really aimed at coaxing China into trilateral talks to satisfy Washington’s geopolitical agenda. In the weeks before the Vienna bilateral talks, U.S. envoy Billingslea had repeatedly called on China to attend in a trilateral format. Such wrangling is inappropriate and undermines diplomatic protocol with Moscow.
Beijing has consistently stated that it will not participate in arms control talks with the U.S. and Russia until both nuclear powers first substantially reduce their vastly greater arsenals. China’s stockpile of nuclear weapons is a mere fraction – some 5 per cent – of either the U.S. or Russia’s. Beijing maintains that Washington must proceed with its obligations for disarmament, along with Russia. Moscow has said it respects China’s position.
The Trump administration has let it be known that it wants to include China in arms control talks with Russia. In principle such comprehensive limitations may seem reasonable. Russia has said that other nuclear powers such as France and Britain should also be included. But what the U.S. side is angling for is not a comprehensive accord in principle; rather it is seeking to rope China into limitations for its own geopolitical agenda of rivalry with Beijing. If Washington is serious about finding a comprehensive treaty, then it should, as China points out, prioritize the scaling back of its own inordinate possession of nukes. The U.S. and Russia account for over 90 per cent of the world’s total nuclear arsenal.
What the propaganda stunt with Chinese flags by the U.S. side in Vienna shows is Washington’s petulance from not being able to cajole China into the talks format with Russia.
As it turned out, the U.S. and Russian sides agreed to hold a second round of talks to follow this week’s meeting.
Russia’s foreign ministry stated: “During the Vienna consultations, the sides agreed to conduct a meeting of experts on military doctrines and nuclear strategies, including the issues of use of nuclear weapons.”
The ministry added: “Russia is open to further dialogue on strategic stability, it seeks to build further relation with the U.S. in arms control, strictly on a parity basis and in reliance on the principle of mutual accounting of interests and concerns of the sides.”
The main issue going forward is the future of the New START treaty governing strategic nuclear weapons. That treaty is due to expire in February next year. Moscow has repeatedly called for an extension, but the Trump administration has demurred about its future, suggesting that it is willing to let it expire. After walking away from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty last year, the Trump administration appears to be conducting a policy of creating global instability and playing with fire by unleashing a new arms race.
Again, lurking behind this reckless brinkmanship is the U.S. objective of coercing Russia and China to acquiesce in its agenda of controlling both by turning bilateral agreements with Moscow into trilateral arrangements with Beijing. Russia has said it will not comply with this stealth conduct by Washington.
What the U.S. needs to do is honor its bilateral relations with Russia and get down to genuine mutual negotiations on strategic stability and arms control. The New START treaty is a test case for Washington’s commitment to its obligations for nuclear disarmament as agreed to from historic bilateral negotiations with Moscow.
The cheap stunt with China’s flags and distortion of the bilateral talks in Vienna with Russia does not inspire confidence in U.S. commitments or intentions. At least under the present administration.
It does not bode well for American credibility in pursuing bilateral talks with Russia on extending the New START treaty which expires in eight months. Indeed, it smacks of bad faith. Playing fast and loose with global security is deplorable.