The Art of Peace: Saving Arms Control

13. Mai 2019

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February’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) took place in the shadow of one of the more concerning events in the history of multilateral arms control. Only days earlier, both the US and Russia officially suspended the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — a 1987 agreement to ban all land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Speaking at the MSC, and in an attempt to save the accord, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged China to play a part in future arms control negotiations.[i] It should be a united Europe, however, that takes the lead in promoting a global discussion on the future of arms control.

Since the INF’s inception, the geopolitical landscape has changed beyond recognition. In recent decades, not only China, but countries including India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, have developed ever more sophisticated weapons systems. This has largely been without participation in arms control negotiations. It came as no surprise that Chinese Politburo Member and Director of the Office of Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi, publicly rejected Merkel’s proposal and the idea of China becoming a party to any agreement similar to the INF. Instead, Yang characterized China’s missile capabilities as purely defensive.[ii]

There are various reasons for this rejection. Most can be linked to China’s geopolitical aspirations in Asia, but are also rooted in the country’s inherent skepticism towards multilateral arms control efforts. It is important that the EU — which since the end of the Cold War has had a unique interest in upholding the international arms control structure — continues to push for constructive Chinese participation and dialogue. If not, the EU might once again be caught by tensions between large military powers.

Joining an INF-style Agreement Would Strategically Disadvantage China

While arms control arrangements like the INF have constrained US and Russian abilities to expand their missile capabilities since the end of the Cold War, China (as a non-signatory) has been developing its missile arsenal continuously since the 1960s. Since the 1990s, the Government of China — considering itself a “smaller power” —has maintained the position that major nuclear powers should first reduce their own nuclear and other military capacities before other, less powerful states be required to match such efforts.[iii]

More recently, China’s 2000-odd ballistic and cruise missiles have become a tool of regional power projection within the Asia-Pacific region. This has allowed the country to compete with the US in the East and South China Sea.[iv] Since Chinese missiles are mostly land-based and intermediate-range, it is estimated that the country would have to abandon about 95 percent of these under an INF-style treaty, including those directed at Taiwan.[v] The US — China’s main competitor in the region — would not have to give up any of its missile systems deployed in the Asia-Pacific region, as US carriers there are sea and air-based. No multilateral agreement extends to such carriers, so participation in any existing agreement would be a clear strategic defeat for Beijing.

Trump: “A Threat to China”

China has become an increasingly active player in multilateral structures. This is highlighted by both the country’s advocacy for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and its participation in negotiations related to the Iran nuclear agreement. China has nevertheless regarded international arms control with skepticism, assuming for some time that both the US and Russia were preparing to exit the INF.[vi] President Trump’s comment that American withdrawal from the INF was intended as a “threat to China and whoever wants to play that game” only reinforced this perspective in Beijing.[vii]

The Chinese government is also highly aware that leaving the INF will allow the US to develop modern, easy-to-build medium and intermediate-range weapon systems. These weapons could be deployed to US naval bases in Asia, or potentially on ground sites of US allies in the region. Such a strategic buildup would give the US strong leverage over Chinese hegemonic efforts in the region while furthering a perception of American military encirclement of the Chinese mainland.[viii] It is likely that – instead of pursuing multilateral arms control efforts only as lip-service — China will double down on its own investments in missile systems and other weapon technologies to counter US competition.[ix] This, in turn, could lead to the spiraling arms race Chancellor Merkel voiced concern about at the MSC.

What the EU Can Do: A Little, United

Neither Washington nor Moscow appear willing to renegotiate the INF treaty. With Beijing disinclined to enter negotiations for a new arms control agreement, EU Member States (and indeed anyone interested in preventing a new arms race) must broaden the global arms control conversation.

Taking post-Cold War geopolitical realities into consideration, not only China, but other nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan must be involved in this broader conversation. This conversation must include such security topics as China’s power projection in Asia, the ongoing tensions in the Kashmir region, and the US deployment of missiles in Japan and South Korea.[x]

Various experts have suggested that the EU should first attempt to reach for the “low-hanging fruit.” The EU could advocate, for example, for trust-based measures between competing powers in diplomatic meetings with large military powers. A first initiative could be a transparent global inventory and monitoring of cruise missiles equipped with nuclear warheads — and potentially a ban. This would reduce the risk of misinterpreting a cruise missile equipped with a non-nuclear warhead as carrying a nuclear one in the event of armed conflict.[xi]

In order to have meaningful leverage in the debate, the EU – and especially the EU members of NATO – needs to define its security priorities and interests more clearly. European NATO members have so far stood by the US in its decision to abandon the INF.[xii] However, if EU governments want to reach out to China and other non-NATO Asian countries, they need to be viewed as independent of Washington and the White House’s more hawkish tone.

A split NATO alliance is undesirable, but an EU split over the future of arms control is even less desirable. To get a more positive reaction than Chancellor Merkel received at the MSC, European countries must band together in future appeals to China and become more open to the discussion on arms control.

References

Picture: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

[i]Joe Gould and Sebastian Sprenger, “Merkel Nudges China to Help Save the INF Treaty,” Defense News, February 18, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/munich-security-conference/2019/02/16/merkel-nudges-china-to-help-save-the-inf-treaty/.

[ii]Helena Legarda, “China Defends Multilateralism but Rejects a New Arms Control Treaty at MSC,” Merics China Update, February 8, 2019, https://www.merics.org/en/newsletter/china-update-42019.

[iii]Wolfgang Richter, “The End of the INF Treaty Is Looming,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, January 4, 2019, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/the-end-of-the-inf-treaty-is-looming/.

[iv]Dave Deptula, “Whether The U.S. Scraps The INF or Stays in, China Must Be Checked,” Forbes,November 5, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davedeptula/2018/11/05/whether-inf-in-or-out-china-must-be-checked/.

[v]David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “A Cold War Arms Treaty Is Unraveling. But the Problem Is Much Bigger, “TheNew York Times, December 9, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/09/us/politics/trump-nuclear-arms-treaty-russia.html.

[vi]Thomas E. Kellogg, “The South China Sea Ruling: China’s International Law Dilemma,” The Diplomat, July 14, 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/07/the-south-china-sea-ruling-chinas-international-law-dilemma/.

[vii]Muh Cui and Wesley Rahn, “INF Treaty: Would US Dropout Begin an ArmsRace with China?,” Deutsche Welle, October 23, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/inf-treaty-would-us-dropout-begin-an-arms-race-with-china/a-46002359.

[viii]Tong Zhao, “Why China Is Worried About the End of the INF Treaty,” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, November 7, 2018, https://carnegietsinghua.org/2018/11/07/why-china-is-worried-about-end-of-inf-treaty-pub-77669.

[ix]Mercy A. Kuo, “US Withdrawal from INF Treaty: Impact on Asia,” The Diplomat, March 1, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/us-withdrawal-from-inf-treaty-impact-on-asia/.

[x]Karl-Heinz Kamp and Wolfgang Rudischhauser, “The INF Treaty: Europe Needs to Act,” Security Policy Working Paper(Berlin: Federal Academy for Security Policy, December 2018), https://www.baks.bund.de/sites/baks010/files/working_paper_2018_29.pdf.

[xi]Sico van der Meer, “The Demise of the INF Treaty: Can the EU Save Arms Control?,” EU Observer, January 24, 2019, https://euobserver.com/opinion/143980.

[xii]Judy Dempsey, “Europe and the End of the INF Treaty,” Carnegie Europe, February 5, 2019, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/78284.

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Hannah Elten

Hannah Elten is a Schwarzman Scholars Alumna and currently working as a European Election Campaign aide to the Germal Social Democratic Party. She holds Degrees in Public Policy, International Relations and Asian Studies from Tsinghua University Beijing, Sciences Po Paris and the University of Sydney.