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Donald Trump

Negotiations needed as nuclear powers face rising tensions

  • With Donald Trump threatening to withdraw the US from a missiles pact with Russia and China modernising its military, an arms race is gathering pace
PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 11:12pm

China was mentioned along with Russia when US President Donald Trump gave notice of his intention to withdraw his country from a landmark arms control agreement with Moscow. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987, prohibits either side from using ground-launched missiles with a range of between 500km and 5,500km. Moscow is alleged by the American leader to have violated the deal, but Beijing, which is not a signatory, has also been building up and enhancing an arsenal of such weapons to protect its interests. Leaving the accord would enable Washington to resume a programme of developing conventional rockets and confronting China by stationing them in the western Pacific.

Trump coupled his threat with a warning to China and Russia that he intended to strengthen his country’s nuclear arsenal. He said such actions would continue until “people come to their senses”. In the final weeks of campaigning for midterm polls that could shape the remainder of his presidency, he has made China a focus of his rhetoric. Locked in a bitter trade war, he has accused Beijing of election interference and there are reports of a planned increased US military presence in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

There is for now no certainty that Trump intends to go ahead with his threats. A medium-range missile that Russia has developed is claimed to have prompted the decision, but Moscow denies violating the pact. A counter-allegation has been made against the US for failing to keep a promise to eliminate missile stockpiles. Concern abounds in Europe and Asia, the treaty having prevented a stand-off between the two biggest nuclear powers and eased tensions.

What Asia thinks (but won't say) about Trump ditching nuclear treaty

But should Trump go ahead with his threat, the decision would be a serious blow to global non-proliferation efforts. Doubts would be raised about the other important arms reduction treaty with Russia, the New Start pact, which limits the number of strategically deployed warheads. The green light would also effectively be given for the United States to develop new weapons systems and deploy them with the perceived threat of China and Russia in mind. An obvious consequence is a quickening in the pace of the arms race that is already under way in Asia, deepening mistrust and insecurity.

China’s modernisation of its military in recent decades is understandable; a rising world power needs to be able to effectively protect its sovereignty and global interests. The Kremlin has said it is ready to work with the US to overcome mutual grievances and Trump’s administration would be wise to opt for such an approach. The same has to be true for disputes with Beijing. Dialogue and communications, dangerously lacking in the present chilly climate, are essential to ease tensions.