Cruising towards competition

Maxwell Downman warns thatplans to tear up the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will be bad for the US in Asia

On October 20, the United States announced its intent to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with Donald Trump stating that ‘we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons [sic] and we’re not allowed to’ in reference to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty.

Yet despite placing the blame on Russia for contravening the Treaty, the United States’ potential withdrawal is about much more than just Russia and nuclear weapons. China and the Asia-Pacific loom large in Washington’s mind as Trump deepens strategic competition globally.

The INF Treaty, which bans the development and deployment of both nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, was signed at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. A landmark in that it banned an entire class of missiles in the wake of Soviet fears of US deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, it has been extraordinarily successful in securing peace in Europe, with Russia and the United States dismantling 2,700 missiles because of the Treaty.

Yet in recent years, the Treaty has been strained. In 2013 Washington started to voice concerns about Russian compliance with it, and in February 2017, TheNew York Times cited US officials declaring Russia had deployed a non-compliant cruise missile. Over the years Moscow has expressed its own concerns, counter-accusing the United States of violating the Treaty and arguing that US ballistic missile defence launchers deployed in Europe are non-compliant and could be repurposed to fire offensive missiles. But the Russians have also contended that the Treaty unfairly prevents it from possessing weapons fielded by its neighbours, including China. Despite disagreements, both now seem to share a concern over Chinese intermediate-range missiles – albeit for different reasons.

The INF Treaty was signed at the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union

Since China has never been a signatory of the INF Treaty,it has been free to build up its arsenal of conventional anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons. Of particular concern to Washington is the new Chinese Dong Feng-21anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of 1,500, dubbed the ‘carrier killer’. And in 2016 China deployed the Dong Feng-26,dubbed the ‘Guam killer’ because of its ability target US military based in Guam.

According to Washington, the United States and its allies have become outgunned in the region. In the event of a conflict with China, the US believes its navy would find itselfat risk, having to rely on sea-launched Tomahawk land-attack missiles and vulnerable carrier-based airpower to strike Chinese A2/AD weapons. As US Admiral Adam Harris told the Senate in March this year, ‘We are at a disadvantage with regard to China today in the sense that China has ground-based ballistic missiles that threaten our basing in the Western Pacific and our ships.’

Some Republicans have argued that if the US was able to deploy INF-violating ground-launched missiles across the Asia Pacific in places such as Japan, Guam, the southern Philippines or even northern Australia, it would regain its strategic advantage against China. Nathan Levine, a Fellow on US-China Relations at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts,states that ‘these weapons could act as the cornerstone of alternative US military strategy for the Western Pacific’. Placing missiles systems here would turn China’s near seas into a ‘no man’s land’, as Michael Swaine,an expert in China and East Asian security studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,has described. Indeed, back in 2011, John Bolton, now National Security Advisor, argued that the US must either expand the INF Treaty to cover China or ‘abrogate it entirely so that we can build our own deterrent capabilities’.

Yet there are a number of reasons to seriously question this logic.First, it is doubtful that annulling the Treaty will bring China to the negotiating table. While Russia has voiced concerns about Chinese missiles for years, it has done so from within the confines of the Treaty. Since the US announcement, China has emphasised the bilateral nature of the Treaty and that it will not ‘accept any form of blackmail’. China historically has resisted attempts to join arms control, especially nuclear, contending that the United States and Russia have a ‘special responsibility’ to disarm.

Rather than pushing China to the negotiating table, the US development and deployment of ground-launched missiles throughout the Asia-Pacific could reinforce Chinese attachment to this class of weapons. Due to China’s deep geography, it is much easier for China to ‘outgun’ the United States in an arms race in ground-launched missiles in the Asia Pacific, and China feels it must rely on these systems due to US superiority in other areas.

Moreover, the strategic utility of this class of weapons for the United States is questionable. In July 2017, Paul Selva, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that there was no military necessity to withdraw from the INF Treaty because the United States already had the capability to hit China with air and sea-launched missiles. If US policymakers believe that missiles on US carriers and frigates are vulnerable, ground-launched missiles would be sitting ducks. In an escalating conflict with China, these missiles would suffer from ‘use it or lose it’ dynamics, decreasing crisis stability.

FUEL TO THE FIRE: US attempts to modify Tomahawk missiles would exacerbate tensions with Russia and China
FUEL TO THE FIRE: US attempts to modify Tomahawk missiles would exacerbate tensions with Russia and China

Similarily, if the United States attempted to modify Tomahawk missiles to fire from existing ground-based launchers, this would further inflame tension with Russia and China. Both Russia and China continue to voice concerns over US ballistic missile defence. For Russia, this would be prophetic, legitimising their accusations of US attempts to undermine strategic stability. China would likely see these trends as further undermining its second strike nuclear capability.

Finally, if the United States does withdraw from the INF Treaty and try to deploy ground-launched missiles throughout the Asia-Pacific, it could encounter push-back from allies. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, has already stated that US withdrawal is ‘undesirable’ and Japan ‘hope[s] it will be averted’. And any deployments to Okinawa would increasingly complicate already fraught Okinawan politics. Given South Korea’s attempts to reduce tension with North Korea, it is not difficult to see why deploying ground-launched missiles in South Korea could be similarly difficult. And the one sure way to start a war with China would be to deploy missiles in Taiwan. The United States could try to deploy missiles in northern Australia, but Australia, like other Asia-Pacific nations, has been keen to avoid upsetting China, as it is now their largest trading partner. This leaves one potential place to deploy these missiles: Guam. But a few conventional ground-launched missiles in Guam would be a high price to pay for tearing up the international arms control framework.

So, while many are correct to note that Washington’s INF Treaty concerns extend beyond Europe, President Trump’s decision does little to help the issue. Abrogating the INF Treaty will not increase security in either Europe or the Asia-Pacific. In both cases, the United States is likely to alienate its allies, worsen relations with its competitors and risk deepening a new nuclear arms race. Bringing China into arms control discussions – both nuclear and conventional – is an important endeavour. But tearing up existing agreements and threatening to build new missiles is not the way to do this.


Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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