By Jaya Ramachandran
Governor Denny Tamaki of Okinawa district has rejected the U.S. plans to base on the island missiles capable of threatening China – apparently as part of President Donald Trump’s move to challenge Beijing and upgrade the importance of Taiwan, 500 kilometres away from the island. If a plan for Okinawa to host such missiles were to develop, Tamaki said: “I can easily imagine fierce opposition from Okinawa residents.”
Okinawa comprises more than 150 islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Japan’s mainland. It’s known for its tropical climate, broad beaches and coral reefs, as well as World War II sites.
Okinawa has been a critical strategic location for the United States Armed Forces since the end of World War II. The island hosts around 26,000 U.S. military personnel, about half of the total complement of the United States Forces Japan, spread among 32 bases and 48 training sites.
The largest island (Okinawa) hosts the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, commemorating a massive 1945 Allied invasion, and Churaumi Aquarium, home to whale sharks and manta rays.
Missiles the U.S. plans to base on Okinawa are prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which, after dissolution, reconstituted into the Russian Federation in 1991.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the then Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.
It was the first arms-control treaty to abolish an entire category of weapons systems. Besides, two protocols to the agreement established unprecedented procedures for observers from both nations to verify first-hand the other countries destruction of its missiles.
The INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional, ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile. The U.S. President Donald Trump formally withdrew from the treaty August 2, 2019, citing Russian noncompliance with the accord. The Pentagon tested two previously prohibited missiles in August and December 2019.
Since the United States withdrew from the Treaty, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea have publicly said that they were not asked to nor are they considering serving as hosts for new U.S. ground-launched missiles. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has previously suggested that he would like to see the deployment of such missiles in Europe and particularly Asia to counter China.
A senior Defence Department official told the Los Angeles Times that the Pentagon is “very attentive to our allies’ concerns, and we recognized their political challenges”. However, the official continued, “everything that’s said in the media is not necessarily what’s said behind closed doors”.
As the Washington-based Arms Control Association reported on June 26, Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg said on June 17 after a NATO Defence Ministerial that the alliance has “no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe”.
China is firmly opposed to any deployment of such missiles in the Asia-Pacific. “If the U.S. insists on the deployment, it will be a provocation at China’s doorstep,” said Chinese Defence Ministry Spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian on June 24. “China will never sit idle and will take all necessary countermeasures,” he warned.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to insist that China join trilateral arms control talks with the United States and Russia and has criticized Beijing’s decision not to attend the June 22 talks in Vienna on the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining arms control agreement limiting their nuclear arsenals.
Before the start of the Vienna talks, Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea, who led the U.S. delegation at the negotiations tweeted a picture of the table, with some empty seats reserved with Chinese flags. “Vienna talks about to start,” he said. “China is a no-show…We will proceed with Russia, notwithstanding.”
Fu Cong, director-general of the department of arms control of China’s foreign ministry, replied, “What an odd scene…Good luck on the extension of the New START! Wonder how LOW you can go?” The United States and Russia are currently believed to possess about 6,000 total nuclear weapons apiece, while China has roughly 300.
According to the Arms Control Association, following the Vienna talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on June 23 that the U.S. placement of Chinese flags at empty seats “is unserious, unprofessional and unappealing for the U.S. to try getting people’s eyes in this way”.
He also noted the incorrect design of the flags that the United States set on the table. “We hope certain people in the U.S. can do their homework and improve their general knowledge to avoid becoming a laughingstock,” he added.
The Trump administration claims that China is engaged in a secret crash program to build up its nuclear forces and that future arms control efforts must include Beijing.
But China has repeatedly refused to join either trilateral talks with the United States and Russia or bilateral talks with the United States.
Before the talks in Vienna, Billingslea on June 8 invited Beijing to join, but the following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying declined the invitation. “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia,” he said. “This position is very clear.”
Billingslea urged China to reconsider. “Achieving Great Power status requires behaving with Great Power responsibility,” he tweeted June 9. “No more Great Wall of Secrecy on its nuclear build-up.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a meeting in Hawaii June 18 with Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Foreign Affairs Office. It is not clear to what extent arms control was discussed at the meeting. After the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell told reporters that Washington is “looking for [Beijing’s] positive engagement in trilateral arms talks… We’d like them to participate in these talks that prevent an unfortunate outcome.”
Defence Secretary Esper echoed similar views at a June 18 meeting with the defence ministers of the NATO. Esper “talked about the urgency of engaging in meaningful trilateral arms control efforts with both Russia and China,” according to a Defence Department readout.
Russia has refused to force China to change its position and join the talks, despite pressure from the United States to do so.
“China should itself decide whether these talks are beneficial for the country,” said Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov June 20. “We will not force our Chinese friends.”
Antonov also repeated a long-time Russian stance that, if China joins arms control talks, then U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom should as well.
Billingslea acknowledged that the U.S. “definition of multilateral might be different, but the principle remains the same”. He claimed that China’s nuclear build-up poses a much greater threat than the French and British nuclear arsenals.
The Trump administration has yet to put forward a concrete proposal for what it wants arms control with China to achieve or detail what the United States would be willing to put forward as concessions in trilateral talks with Russia and China.