President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. China was not a signatory of the 1987 arms treaty. (Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
The shape of what many in Europe and the United States call a new Cold War has begun to emerge, punctuated by new dynamics, in part because of the rise of China.
The change was evident as President Donald J. Trump explained his decision to abandon a 31-year-old arms-control treaty with Russia — hinting he was ready for a new arms race with both Moscow and Beijing.
Past attempts to embarrass President Vladimir V. Putin into changing his behavior, in both the nuclear and cyberconflict arenas, have failed. During the Obama administration, the exposure of Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2014 did nothing to alter Moscow’s arms buildup. Nor did the decision to name Mr. Putin as the man behind the 2016 attack on the Democratic National Committee and the widespread use of social media to widen fissures in American politics. There is little evidence that the indictment of members of Mr. Putin’s military intelligence have deterred the Russians.
But in both cases, China is lurking in the background, a powerful force in a way it never was in the first Cold War, which began just as Mao declared the creation of the People’s Republic. And while China appears to be the reason for Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the missile treaty with Russia, it is causing new anxieties in a Europe already mistrustful of Mr. Trump’s “America First” policies.
Mr. Trump argued correctly that the arms treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, left China free to build up its own nuclear and conventional missiles. (China was never a signatory to the treaty.)
The Trump administration identifies both Russia and China as “strategic competitors” of the United States. But when it comes to countering their nuclear advances and their increasingly innovative use of cyberconflict to outmaneuver their adversaries, Mr. Trump’s strategy is a mystery.
Mr. Trump’s recent declaration that he was ready to plunge the world back into a 1950s-style arms race is bound to cause another rift between Washington and its European allies — exactly the kind of fracture inside NATO that Mr. Putin has promoted.
The Europeans do not deny that Russia has violated the I.N.F. treaty. Most European leaders believe other weapons systems deter the Russians, including air- and ground-launched missiles. For them, Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon one of the few remaining treaties controlling nuclear weapons fits a narrative of “America First” at the expense of alliances like NATO, and is the latest in a series of abandoned agreements, from the Paris accord on climate to the Iranian nuclear deal.
They see few advantages from leaving the treaty. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, called the move «a gift to Russia that exposes Europe to a growing nuclear threat», because as America enters an arms race, «Russia can quickly deploy new weapons».
If the breach with Russia opens, it will most likely rekindle the Europeans’ fear that their territory would be the battlefield for the superpowers. «I am deeply worried», Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States, said on October 21. He urged Washington instead to try to bringChina into the treaty.
Mr. Putin has little incentive to negotiate a new I.N.F. treaty; his intermediate-range missiles fit a strategy of disruption. The Chinese have even less incentive to join any talks: Most of their missiles, nuclear and non-nuclear, fall within the range of weapons prohibited by the treaty.
They would be giving up one of their primary tools for keeping the United States at a distance in the Pacific. And the Americans, the Chinese say, have missiles of the same range at sea and on aircraft, now permitted by the treaty.
For the Trump administration, it is like the early 1950s all over again, said one of the president’s top advisers, as a new threat emerged and Washington argued over how, or if, to counter it. But this time Washington does not seem to be consulting its allies.