China defends multilateralism but rejects a new arms control treaty at MSC
China has rejected appeals to join a Cold-War-era arms control treaty while at the same time calling for multilateralism in international affairs. At the Munich Security Conference (MSC), which ended last weekend, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi opposed the idea of a new global treaty to control intermediate nuclear missiles and insisted that Chinese missile capabilities were purely defensive.
The call for a global treaty had come from Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Fearing a nuclear arms race after the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, she said at the conference that “disarmament is something that concerns us all and we would of course be glad if such talks were held not just between the United States, Europe and Russia but also with China.”
The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 between the United States and the Soviet Union and bans all ground-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty does not cover air- or sea-launched missiles. The US announced in January that it would withdraw from the treaty later this year because of repeated Russian violations since 2014. Russia denies any wrongdoing.
Merkel’s call for a new multilateral treaty is seen by many European diplomats at NATO as a potential way to save parts of the accord because a new treaty could address American concerns about a growing military threat from China and Russia. But speaking on a panel at the MSC, Yang Jiechi, a member of the CCP Politburo, immediately rejected the idea. “China develops its capabilities strictly according to its defensive needs and doesn’t pose a threat to anybody else. So, we are opposed to the multilateralization of the INF,” he said. He called on Russia and the United States to return to the treaty. In a speech earlier during the conference, Yang had called for multilateralism and “win-win cooperation”.
China’s rejection of a global arms control treaty is not unexpected. An INF-style treaty would cover the vast majority of China’s missiles, which are mostly ground-based and intermediate-range. According to US estimates China has more than 2000 ballistic and cruise missiles. Under a treaty similar to the current INF regime, China would have to give up about 95 percent of them, including those directed at Taiwan and those that are seen as a deterrent against the United States.
Helena Legarda, research associate at MERICS: “China’s swift rejection of a new multilateral INF treaty doesn’t come as a surprise but makes Beijing’s calls for more multilateralism ring somewhat hollow. The future of arms control is global and will at some stage have to include China’s rapidly developing capabilities.”