U.S. diplomats staged a photo showing Chinese flags in front of empty seats at the start of nuclear talks in Vienna on Monday as a way to pressure Beijing over its refusal to participate, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported.
President Donald Trump’s special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea posted the photo on Twitter, declaring “China is a no-show.”
“Beijing still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things,” he added — apparently a reference to Trump’s oft-repeated allegations that China withheld information about the outbreak of the coronavirus.
The U.S. and Russia on Monday opened what are scheduled to be two days of talks on the New START Treaty, which is due to expire in February. The meeting represents a resumption of the dialogue on nuclear nonproliferation, which has been suspended for at least a year and a half. In that time, major components of the nuclear control infrastructure have crumbled, including the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which Trump abandoned last year, citing violations of the accord by Moscow.
The U.S. has insisted that China should join the discussions, which have long been a two-way conversation between Washington and Moscow. While Trump cited Russian violations for quitting the INF, the Americans for years had expressed concerns that the accord had handcuffed the U.S. while allowing China, which was not a party to the agreement, to build up an arsenal of mid-range nuclear missiles.
In a tweet earlier in June, Billingslea, the special envoy, had complained about China’s refusal to participate in the talks in Vienna, sniping: “China just said it has no intention to participate in trilateral negotiations. It should reconsider. Achieving Great Power status requires behaving with Great Power responsibility.”
According to Kommersant, Russia’s delegation in Vienna objected to the placement of the Chinese flags without China’s presence, and the Russian ambassador to Austria posted a photo of the meeting room, after the talks had started showing participants with only name cards and bottles of water on the table.
But the newspaper reported that before the Russian delegation arrived, the Americans placed the flags in front of the empty seats and took a photograph. U.S. and Russian flags can be seen in the background.
This is not a real photo from the talks: as Kommersant learned the Russian delegation objected to Chinese flags in the absence of Chinese, so the US made this pic and then removed ALL flags before the meeting started https://t.co/ZetZOiURUt https://t.co/DYaE5e7JUN
— Elena Chernenko (@ElenaChernenko) June 22, 2020
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.