One of the most resounding political events in the second half of October 2018 was the US president Donald Trump’s statement that he would withdraw the USA from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (often referred to as the INF Treaty), which was signed by the USA and the USSR in 1987. He also stated that it was essential to modernize the US’s nuclear missiles in order to increase the country’s potential in a confrontation with both Russia and China.
A second, equally significant event, which was not however reported anything like as widely by the international media, was the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held in Brussels on October 18-19. The declared purpose of these meetings is “to strengthen dialogue and cooperation between the two continents on a wide range of areas”. Discussions focused on the theme: “Europe and Asia: Global Partners for Global Challenges”.).
At first sight these two events appear to be absolutely unrelated and the fact that they occurred at almost exactly the same time looks like a coincidence.
The present author, however, sees them as closely connected. And not just in the vague sense that “all events are interconnected”, but in a very specific way: they are both connected to the rewriting of the international order, a process that is taking place under our very eyes.
The USA, which was, without a doubt, the leading world power in the first two decades following the “end of the Cold War”, now has less influence in global affairs, and there are very real reasons for this. Its current policy of (quasi) isolationism merely serves to further this tendency and encourage other countries – whether allies or adversaries of the US – to seek alternative strategies in a new, and increasingly complex, world order.
We can observe a remarkable new trend: those “other countries” are joining forces in a wide variety of different directions, in order to tackle serious and persistent problems. The Asia-Europe Meetings are becoming one of the main forums for this process: these biennial meetings, at both ministerial and higher levels, were first held in 1996, with each meeting held in a different European or Asian city.
This year the Asia-Europe Meeting was attended by prime ministers or heads of state from 51 different countries, plus senior EU leaders and the Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These included the prime ministers of China, Japan, France and the Russian Federation, and the German Chancellor, all of whom took part in both the plenary session and also bilateral meetings. A wide variety of events involving political experts, business leaders and cultural figures took place alongside the Meeting.
Almost all the addresses to the Meeting contained references to community (phrases like “we are bound by ties of blood” “you and I” etc.), which clearly demonstrated a wish to be involved in specific tendencies in global political and economic affairs. One such tendency is the growth of links between many different countries, as part of the development of international trade rules.
In his closing address to the 2018 Asia-Europe Meeting, the president of the European Commission, Donald Tusk, summed up the general opinion of participants. Among other things, he talked about the shared determination of all the participants to “renew our support for the rules-based international order” – meaning those trade rules referred to above. That, in his opinion is the “most important signal from this summit, especially valid in the current geopolitical context.”
There is little doubt who the “signal” referred to by Donald Tusk is directed at: the USA. Washington is now a disrupter of that “order” which is a central part of the developing new “geopolitical context”. Nevertheless, the USA is still a key military and political ally, and one of the main trading partners, of both the EU and Japan.
That being said, in its relations with China, the USA is in rather a contradictory position: it is one of China’s main trading and economic partners, but is also turning into China’s main military and political adversary.
Whatever disagreements the participants in the Meeting in Brussels may have with each other concerning the USA, those differences are overshadowed by the latter’s isolationist (or quasi-isolationist, as noted above) course, which emphasizes bi-party trade and economic relations and agreements, and the need to review those same international trade rules. All this certainly gives the leaders of the EU, China, Japan, (and, naturally, Russia) something to whisper into each others’ ears about.
At that moment, the news of Donald Trump’s “initiative” to withdraw the USA from the INF Treaty was breaking: in effect Donald Trump was walking up to the table where a group of “conspirators” were plotting to take action behind the back of the world leader, and thumping it with his big fist.
That answering “signal” from the USA was directed to all of those participants who were sitting round that table, and not just (or maybe not so much, or even not at all) to Russia. For this reason, among others, all those discussions about “missile flight times” that have dominated the political talk shows on Russian television seem rather premature.
The Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has expressed “regret” concerning Donald Trump’s comments on the INF Treaty, as well as hope that things will not go beyond words. In their comments, Japanese experts have expressed surprise about the timing of Donald Trump’s declaration, as discussions on whether the INF Treaty, entered into more than 30 years ago, fully meets the needs of the new realities in international affairs have long been under way. It would seem appropriate to hold preliminary discussions on bringing it up to date, and to include a number of Asian and European countries in the talks.
The fact that no effort has been made to sound out the views of countries that might participate in the (hypothetical) revision of the INF Treaty is clear evidence of the US government’s political motives for making its declaration. We have already looked at one of those motives.
We could also consider another one, which is no less important. On October 25-27 the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make the first official visit by a Japanese leader to China for several years. His visit to the PRC may lead to a breakthrough in relations between the two leading Asian powers, which are gradually improving. The possibility that the military and political treaty between the USA and Japan may cease to be effective should not be ruled out.
However, now this visit will be dominated by Beijing’s negative reaction to the proposal by the leader of Japan’s key ally that China become a party to the INF Treaty This does nothing to help create a positive atmosphere for Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing.
Finally it is worth pointing out that the latest aggressive “lunge” in the controversy about the INF Treaty clearly fits in with the personal style of the current US leader in his dealings with other countries. The USA recently made a rather similar attack on China, as part of the unfolding “trade war”.
It is possible that this is a kind of tactical step, part of a “leaving but also staying” strategy. That is, the US is clearly keen to reduce its commitments in various international disputes, but still wants to leave open the possibility of intervening in those processes which it sees as touching on its interests.
However – to return to the fencing metaphor – the lunge in the trade dispute with China is already having a negative effect both on the US itself and on the global economy as a whole. It remains to be seen what will happen in relation to the USA’s similar “lunge” at the system of international stability in the area of missiles and nuclear weapons.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”