'Performance art?': China rebukes U.S. envoy for photo stunt at talks with Russia

Francois Murphy
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'Performance art?': China rebukes U.S. envoy for photo stunt at talks with Russia

Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov meets with U.S. special envoy Marshall Billingslea in Vienna

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy to nuclear arms control talks with Russia on Monday taunted China for refusing to attend, posting a picture of Chinese flags placed at empty seats around the table, which Beijing mocked as an act of "performance art".

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to include China in talks to replace New START, the flagship nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia, which expires in February. China, a nuclear power with an arsenal a fraction the size of those of the Cold War-era superpowers, has repeatedly declined.

"China is a no-show," U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea said on Twitter around the time he arrived for the talks in a palace adjoining Austria's Foreign Ministry.

"Beijing still hiding behind #GreatWallofSecrecy on its crash nuclear build-up, and so many other things. We will proceed with #Russia, notwithstanding," he added.

His post https://twitter.com/USArmsControl/status/1274956212723802113?s=20 included a picture of a Chinese flags at empty seats around the negotiating table, with no explanation for how they had been placed there when China was never due to attend.

The director general of the arms control department at China's Foreign Ministry, Fu Cong, responded https://twitter.com/FuCong17/status/1274976022237044738?s=20: "What an odd scene! Displaying Chinese National Flags on a negotiating table without China's consent! Good luck on the extension of the New START! Wonder how LOW you can go?"

China's mission to the United Nations in Vienna retweeted Billingslea's photo with the caption "US performance art?".

Russia, for its part, posted pictures https://twitter.com/mission_rf/status/1275028953300860929 of the talks after they started, with seats filled and no Chinese flags. Austria's Foreign Ministry, which hosted the talks, declined to comment.

There was no immediate announcement of the outcome of the talks. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna said on Twitter they had ended by Monday evening, adding: "Official comments will follow."

The talks in Vienna are on a possible replacement for the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which caps U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons warheads at 1,550 each. That replaced the original Cold War-era START treaty signed in 1991 six months before the Soviet Union collapsed.

China has around 300 warheads in total, roughly the same as France, and many times less than the thousands possessed by Washington and Moscow, according to the Stockholm International Peace Institute.

Trump, who has clashed with China on a range of issues, has repeatedly called for Beijing to join talks on a replacement for New START. China has rejected those calls.

Billingslea and his Russian interlocutor, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, both said little about the substance of the talks on their arrival.

"We'll see," Billingslea told Reuters when asked what he expected to come of the talks as he arrived. Ryabkov told reporters: "Let's see, let's see. We are always very hopeful."

(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by Peter Graff)