China-US relations

Trump may or may not meet Xi. But first, Chinese and US generals need to talk

  • Drew Thompson says Donald Trump’s cancellation of a nuclear treaty with Russia is also aimed at China
  • The US and China militaries need to forge a pact to enhance regional security
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 3:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 1:59pm

On October 20, United States President Donald Trump stated his intent to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, saying: “Russia has violated the agreement … so we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

Since 2014, the State Department has been reporting that Russia was in violation of the pact by developing a prohibited cruise missile. Last year, it identified the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile system, also known by the Nato designation SSC-8, as the offending system.

US officials across two administrations have engaged with Russia, encouraging it to scrap the system and come back into compliance with the treaty, while actively consulting allies about the consequences of the agreement falling into irrelevance.

In cancelling the agreement known as INF, Trump provided a rationale that was consistent with his national security strategy: it’s about Russia and China.

He said: “Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say, ‘let's really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons’, but if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it, and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable.”

Watch: Trump to end nuclear treaty with Russia

The end of an arms control treaty with Russia is disappointing to many, but strategic stability between the US and Russia will be maintained, even if it is more fragile than before.

A bigger concern should be the lack of strategic stability with China, a state of affairs that is unlikely to change.

Just as the US president has determined that it is in the national interest to leave the INF, China for its own reasons has resisted developing similar pacts. and China’s capabilities are growing. .

America’s armchair generals are risking military confrontation with China

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress this year said China had established a nuclear triad for the first time: air, land and sea-launched missiles.

China’s conventional strike systems, including ground-launched cruise missiles, have expanded and modernised in the last two decades. A consequence is mistrust and insecurity on its periphery.

In response, Taiwan is deploying ground-launched cruise missiles to enable it to strike ships and targets on the mainland. Japan is also developing air-launched cruise missiles.

These developments are evidence of a regional arms race fuelled by China’s military modernisation and ensuing security concerns.

China should consider using future agreements with the US to enhance stability of the region.

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The US and Chinese militaries held a nuclear dialogue in 2008 and have not had one since. A military-to-military dialogue is an easy, no-cost option to boost mutual understanding and avoid miscalculation.

China and the US established a confidence-building mechanism in 2014 to exchange information about military activities.

In 2016, the US proposed broadening the mechanism to include notifying each other of ballistic missile launches. The US already has similar obligations under a memorandum of understanding with Russia and the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime, which China is not a party to.

Watch: North Korea shows no sign of denuclearisation

The proposal was intended to build trust and cooperation that could lead to more complex and meaningful agreements in the future, but China declined the offer. The confidence-building mechanism is currently underused, but with political will from both sides, it could be reinvigorated.

Russia and the US have a long, well-established history of exchanging such information and providing opportunities for on-the-ground and overhead verification of compliance that forms a foundation for strategic stability.

The INF and more recent agreements like the New Start Treaty devote hundreds of pages to notifications, verification and inspections, which embody the Russian proverb that former US President Ronald Reagan adopted, “Trust, but verify.”

China has few such agreements with other countries and little experience developing or implementing confidence-building measures like the US-Russia treaties.

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As China seeks to achieve its dream of national rejuvenation through building a strong economy and a powerful military, it will need to rethink its approach to stability.

The Soviet Union, without trade with the West, built strategic stability through a variety of diplomatic mechanisms featuring transparency, dialogues, hotlines and notifications, and through treaties that established and governed the new norms.

Economic interdependence was China’s preferred mechanism for assuring neighbours of its peaceful intentions, while opacity served its interests when the People’s Liberation Army was technologically behind.

The limits of economic integration as a foundation of security are increasingly apparent, however.

It is naive to expect China to waltz into negotiations that would result in the scrapping of warheads and weapon systems.

That said, China would benefit by being more transparent about its existing capabilities and engaging more willingly in dialogues.

Structured, negotiated arms control regimes have a track record of enhancing regional security. In 1987, despite not being a signatory to the INF, West Germany announced that it would scrap its 72 Pershing 1A missiles if the US and the Soviet Union reached agreement on the INF.

Today, East and Southeast Asia would undoubtedly be greatly reassured by the advent of dialogue between US and China.

By hiding its capabilities, China no longer reassures the US or its neighbours. Nor can it impose a cost on the US, which is leaving the INF to develop its own ground-launched cruise missiles.

Negotiations for the INF began in 1980 and it was not signed until 1987. Developing similar agreements between the US and China will doubtlessly take as much political commitment and time.

All the more reason for China and the US to set aside their differences in other parts of the relationship and restart a meaningful dialogue on this issue as soon as possible.

Drew Thompson was the director for China at the US Department of Defence. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He can be followed on Twitter: @TangAnZhu