Washington (AFP) Dec 13, 2001
President George W. Bush announced Thursday that the United States is pulling out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, over Russia's objections, in order to deploy a missile defense system.
"I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks," Bush announced in the White House Rose Garden.
Despite opposition from Russia, China and key US allies to abandoning the cornerstone of Cold War arms control efforts, Bush said he had given Moscow the six months' formal notice the accord requires for withdrawal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the move was expected but Moscow "nevertheless considers it to be a mistake," even as he emphasized that Bush's decision is "not a threat to the security of the Russian Federation."
That relatively mild rebuke came as senior Russian lawmakers speculated gloomily about nuclear showdowns with China, India and Pakistan.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue, meanwhile, said, "We've taken note of the relevant reports and express our concern," and called for "strategic dialogue" on the issue. China was not a signatory to the pact.
Bush insisted the decision in no way would undermine the "new, much more hopeful and constructive relationship" that he and Putin have been crafting since Bush took office January 20, nor would it affect Russian security.
Bush is expected to meet with Putin in Russia next summer.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush had notified Putin of the move by telephone last Friday and had consulted Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Thursday.
Fleischer told reporters that Bush had also discussed the issue with leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Japan earlier this week.
The spokesman also said that Bush had decided against agreeing to Russia's push for amending the pact because Washington feared doing so would lead to "incessant wrangling" over which missile defense tests violated the accord.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at Bush's side for the announcement, later said he would meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov in Brussels next week to work on "a framework that can replace the treaty."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that the trip would help the two sides "aggressively move forward" with a deal -- announced by Putin and Bush in mid-November -- to cut the nuclear arsenals of the Cold War rivals.
Bush has said he would like to cut the US stockpile to between 1,700 and 2,000 weapons, and Powell said Putin has indicated he would pare Russia's arsenal to between 1,500 and 2,200 weapons.
During the 2000 US presidential campaign, Bush made deploying a missile defense system against attack from so-called "rogue states" like Iraq and North Korea a cornerstone of his foreign policy platform.
But since the September 11 terror strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush has emphasized the nightmare scenario of terrorists acquiring chemical, biological or nuclear arms and missiles able to reach the United States.
"We know that the terrorists and some of those who support them seek the ability to deliver death and destruction to our doorstep via missile. And we must have the freedom and the flexibility to develop effective defenses against those attacks," said Bush.
"Defending the American people is my highest priority as commander-in-chief, and I cannot and will not allow the United States to remain in a treaty that prevents us from developing effective defenses," the president stressed.
Putin has been openly skeptical of that scenario, and Russian officials have countered that US withdrawal from the treaty, though perfectly legal, threatens global strategic stability.
The ABM treaty signed by Washington and Moscow was premised on the idea that denying both signatories missile defenses would curb the race to develop ever more deadly offensive weapons, as well as make them less likely to launch a first strike because that could lead to massive nuclear retaliation.
When the US withdrawal from the treaty becomes official next summer, Washington will be able to move ahead with testing of its anti-missile program. Five tests have been conducted thus far, three of which were successful.
The United States also could then begin the construction of a radar station in Alaska that would be vitally important for the deployment of its missile defense system.
"Both Russia and the United States, compared with other nuclear powers, have for a long time had an effective system for penetrating anti-missile defenses," Putin said in an address to the nation.
"That is why I can say with complete certainty that the decision taken by the American president is not a threat to the security of the Russian Federation.
"We are not surprised by this decision -- which we nevertheless consider to be a mistake," Putin said, adding that Russia was not preparing to withdraw jointly from the ABM treaty as proposed by the United States.
Bush's long-expected move also drew criticism from some in the US Congress, where Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he was concerned about US allies' reaction to the announcement.
"Unilateral action by the United States sends the wrong message. I think we could expect the withdrawal of treaties by other countries," Daschle said, adding that abandoning the treaty was "a high price to pay for testing" the missile defense system.
"Unilaterally abandoning the ABM Treaty is a serious mistake," Democratic Senator Joe Biden agreed in a statement. "There is no missile defense test the US must conduct in the near future that would require us to walk away from a treaty that has helped keep the peace for the last 30 years."
He also warned that the move "has the potential to set of a dangerous new arms race in Asia."
Although Congress cannot affect Bush's decision, it does hold the purse strings for any future missile defense development.
Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, meanwhile, applauded Bush's decision, noting in a statement that "the threat of attack from rogue states and organizations grows everyday."
Republican Senator Jesse Helms also praised the decision in a statement, echoing Bush's own words in dubbing the treaty a "relic of a bygone era that no longer serves American national security interests -- if, indeed, it ever did."
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair also said the world had moved on since the ABM treaty was signed, stating that the treaty was a matter for those two countries, "and its future is essentially a matter for them," as well.
"What is important is the maintenance of strategic stability rather than a particular framework to achieve that."
China did not immediately react after Bush's announcement but earlier expressed concern and called for talks on the issue.
"We've taken note of the relevant reports and express our concern," foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.
A German foreign ministry spokesman welcomed Bush's announcement as "an opportunity to reduce the strategic nuclear threat."
Germany, however, would have "welcomed a renegotiation of the ABM treaty," he added.
France said it hoped "binding international mechanisms" could be put in place to provide strategic stability following the US decision.
A foreign ministry statement called the ABM treaty "an essential component of strategic stability in recent years."
In Brussels, NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur said the alliance had "no official reaction, as this involves a bilateral treaty" signed by Washington and Moscow.
There was also no reaction from the European Union.
Russia's neighbor Finland voiced hope that the ABM treaty would be succeeded by new international arms agreements but greeted the US pullout from the pact with a suggestion that its usefulness had expired.
"We think the ABM treaty has had considerable significance by increasing stability" in the world, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
Norway's deputy foreign minister, Kim Traavig, meanwhile, said the move "risked having serious consequences for the strategic stability that had been created in 1972."
Norway, a NATO member, was more reticent than its Scandinavian neighbor Sweden, which stated that the US decision could lead to new weapons' development and an increase in nuclear proliferation.
Czech President Vaclav Havel, a key leader of the struggle which brought down communism, expressed understanding for the United States' withdrawal, however, saying the agreement was "outdated."
Jiang and Putin discussed the issue just ahead of US President George W. Bush's statement Thursday that the United States would abandon the treaty in order to deploy a missile defense system, the People's Daily said.
The Chinese president, presently on a state visit to Myanmar, also took a telephone call from Bush afterwards, the report said.
"Jiang Zemin presented both Putin and Bush with China's position on the issue and reiterated the importance of maintaining international arms control and arms reductions under the current situation," the daily said.
"China will make its own efforts to work with every nation of the world to continue to uphold world peace and stability," Jiang was quoted as saying.
Both Beijing and Moscow have viewed the ABM treaty as the cornerstone of the global strategic balance, and strongly opposed the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the treaty and the planned missile defence shield.
On Thursday, China's foreign ministry expressed "concern" at the then-imminent US announcement and called for talks.
"We've taken note of the relevant reports and express our concern," said spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.
"China is not in favour of missile defence systems," she told a news conference.
"We hope the US will heed seriously the opinion of other countries and cautiously handle this issue."
Bush spoke to Jiang Thursday morning US time, the White House said Thursday.
"President Jiang said to the president, he looked forward to further high-level dialogue about this topic," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
A fledgling strategic partnership between China and Russia has been largely based on fears of an over-dominant America in the post-Cold War world and has centered on joint opposition to US plans to build a national missile shield.
The proposed shield would have been illegal under the stipulations of the ABM treaty.
Beijing is also concerned the shield could one day be extended to East Asia and cover Taiwan.
China maintains that Taiwan is an integral part of the Chinese mainland and has threatened to use force if it should ever declare independence.
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