Secretary Delfin Lorenzana with former Chinese defense minister Ge Chang Wanquan and with former US secretary of defense James Mattis.
In the nuclear crossfire
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - March 1, 2019 - 12:00am

The Trump administration has been leaving international organizations and breaking deals. Diplomats despair at the self-induced demise of American leadership. But now America’s withdrawal from international arms control treaties has made it outright dangerous not just for the US but for the world.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF)

On Feb. 1, President Trump announced that the US will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF). The following day, Russia announced that it would also withdraw from the treaty. Signed on Dec. 8, 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons that were deployed in Europe and prohibited state parties from producing, flight testing and possessing these missiles.

The US has cited Russia’s repeated violations of the agreement as the reason for its withdrawal. Under the terms of the treaty, it would take six months for the US withdrawal to take effect. If there is no turning back and the treaty does fall apart, both Washington and Moscow would embark in large-scale development and deployment of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles of ranges banned under the Treaty. This will have a domino effect for other great powers and regions around the globe. China is not a signatory which consequently enabled it to build what is already the world’s largest intermediate range nuclear arsenal. As a result of this development, China will also embark in further strengthening its own nuclear inventory qualitatively and quantitatively.

China is the elephant in the room in the INF for both the US and Russia. For the US, the choice had been to find ways to bring China into the treaty, negotiate a new treaty or develop new American weapons to counter it. China’s recent pronouncement seems to dash hope for such a treaty. It was reported that at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, China rebuffed an appeal for a global framework to ban medium-range missiles made by German chancellor Angela Merkel. Yang Jiechi, the Communist party’s top foreign policy official, said he hoped the US and Russia could return to the INF and said China opposed multilateralizing it.

President Trump himself threw doubt into the idea when he said in his State of the Union Address: “Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far”.

Lorenzana reaction

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is no stranger to Washington drama having previously served there as defense attache but he is also perplexed by this latest twist and turn in President Trump’s foreign and security policies.

He was among the first of ASEAN countries to react when he said in an interview with the Financial Times that the US withdrawal “has triggered a nuclear arms race” and “he fears Beijing might target his country if the US were to use it as a staging post in a future atomic war with China.”

The FT report said Lorenzana’s concern is shared by American allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. “The main concern is that Washington would need their territory to deploy the missile systems it develops that are banned under the INF Treaty. They are worried that this would disrupt relations with Beijing or make them a prime target of China in any potential future military conflict.”

It said Secretary Lorenzana’s stark warning reflects fears across the Asia-Pacific region, as countries contemplate a central security dilemma: how to balance their alliances with the US against relations with a rising China.

“We are here in this region, right smack between the US and China,” Lorenzana was quoted. “We have some issues, trade issues and there are also some issues in the South China Sea about freedom of navigation.”

“Should there be a shooting war and nuclear weapons would be used, I think the Philippines would be a fair target for anybody who isagainst the United States,” Secretary Lorenzana said.

The Mutual Defense Treaty

Notwithstanding President Duterte’s tilt towards China in expectation of huge economic benefits and his anti-US rhetoric, the Philippines remains one of the US’s closest allies in Asia. There is a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed in 1951 that obligates each country to defend the other.

The MDT has been the subject of much discussion – mainly whether the US will live up to its obligation under the treaty should the Philippines be attacked. My view is that such discussions are fruitless – the US would always act in its own interest. That would apply to any other MDTs that the US has – with Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Procedurally, the US Administration would anyway have to seek the approval of Congress who would have to agree whether it is in their interest to send Americans in harm’s way. An invasion and occupation of any of the main island chains – Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines – would be considered a grave threat to US security so it is inconceivable that the US would sit idly by.

The question for the Philippines is whether an invasion and occupation of the territories in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea (SCS/WPS) that it occupies or otherwise claims would trigger such intervention. The provisions of the treaty are ambiguous on this issue and in my view, it should remain as such. Since the US has said it is not taking any side in the territorial dispute, the main determinant here of its intervention in the SCS/WPS is the threat to freedom of navigation. Here it is joined by others in the region in sharing this concern – Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Korea and even the UK and France. The frequency of freedom of navigation exercises taking place indicate that the US and its allies see this as an immediate threat that must be nipped in the bud. Whether it is prepared to go beyond this if it does not deter China’s ambitions is a question of profound significance to the region. By then, the doubts over the MDT would have been rendered irrelevant.

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