Editor’s Note: Dr. John Lee is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute (Washington) and United States Studies Centre (Sydney), and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney. From 2016 until April 2018 he was senior national security adviser to the Australian foreign minister and also served as the lead adviser on the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The opinions expressed here are his own.
US President Donald Trump blamed repeated Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to justify his announcement over the weekend that the United States will soon withdraw from the bilateral agreement which has been in place since 1987.
That China is not a signatory to the treaty was mentioned only briefly as a contributing reason.
While Russia and other European countries will probably loudly voice their views on America withdrawing, Asian countries will be less vocal. But do not read reluctance to comment as indifference. Trump’s decision is likely to have the greater impact on matters with respect to China and other Asian powers than it will Russia and Europe.
The INF Treaty was signed by former President Ronald Reagan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev and remains the only live Cold War-era arms control agreement between the two countries (with former Soviet Union states Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan still abiding by the treaty’s terms.)
The treaty required the US and Russia to permanently eliminate their stockpiles of ground-based nuclear and conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of roughly 300-3,400 miles, and to refrain from developing or testing such missiles.
To be sure, the Russian factor in the decision to withdraw from the treaty is a real and meaningful one. America’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review devotes far more words on the Russian threat than it does China. Washington has been publicly accusing Moscow of developing a cruise missile which violates the treaty. In response, Washington is developing its own cruise missile to counter evolving Russian capabilities. In November 2017, the Pentagon indicated that America would first withdraw from the INF Treaty if it ever decided to deploy the new missile.
Even so, the Russian factor is relatively less compelling than Trump is suggesting. Back in July 2017, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Paul Selva argued that the Russian violations of the treaty do not offer Moscow any military advantage in Europe as Russian weapons could be offset by American air- and sea-launched systems which are not banned. In other words, there is no immediate need to tear up the INF Treaty to defend American allies and interests against Russian intentions.
In this context, the situation vis-à-vis China, uninhibited by any agreement, is very different and far more pressing. China may well have surpassed Japan as the most powerful Asian naval and air power and is fast approaching parity with American forces when it comes to China’s immediate periphery. In testimony given to the Senate Armed Services Committee by the then Head of US Pacific Command in April 2017, Admiral Harry Harris observed that the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force (PLARF) has developed the largest and most diverse missile force in the world. Approximately 95% of the PLARF’s missiles would violate the terms of the INF Treaty if China were a signatory.
But there is almost no chance that Beijing would agree to any INF-like terms. Given relative weaknesses in sea- and air-based platforms, its land-based intermediate missiles (capable of carrying conventional and nuclear payloads) have become the central pillar of its approach to defend the Chinese mainland and deter the US and other Asian countries from intervening and prevailing in possible local conflicts. These include potential wars with American, Japanese, Taiwanese, Indian and Russian forces in the region.
From the American perspective, the problem is not China seeking the means to defend its mainland. No country would seriously consider an unprovoked attack against Chinese cities. The concern is China using its rapidly growing and increasingly lethal land-based missiles to warn off American and allied counter-responses should the PLA decide to invade Taiwan, or else entrench Chinese claims in the East and South China Seas.
As far as Beijing is concerned, these are merely actions in self-defense as territory beyond the mainland become “core interests” to be defended, including with the use of force. For America and much of Asia, this is how Beijing achieves hegemony in the region after American forces are deterred from intervening and are eventually eased out of Asia.
The speech by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this month confirms competing with China and preventing Beijing from using its power in ways that adversely affect American interests is the long game. Given this mindset, the INF Treaty which restricts a wide array of missiles will increasingly be perceived as an intolerable restriction on American forces.
For example, Chinese missiles are designed to bypass or overwhelm American defenses as they fly at rapid and even supersonic speed toward the latter’s naval vessels and planes. This is at the heart of China’s so-called Anti-Access/Areal Denial (A2/AD) approach which aims to dissuade the American Navy from intervening in any maritime warzone against China by inflicting prohibitive costs. One effective counter to A2/AD is to develop land-based missiles which can be easily hidden, moved, and launched from any land-based site in the region. The US Army has proposed perfecting a land-based missile which can fly faster than Mach-5 and hit targets 1,000 miles away. Legal loopholes and sophistry aside, that would most likely violate the INF Treaty.
Despite nervousness about any overt arms race, Asian allies and partners know that if American forces cannot prevail against the PLA or are cowered into remaining on the sidelines, then Chinese regional dominance is all but assured. Having emerged as the most creative and important strategic ally when it comes to countering China, Shinzo Abe’s Japan is likely to make the best out of Trump’s announcement. If Australia’s 2016 Defence and 2017 Foreign Policy White Papers are any indication, Canberra will do similarly. Southeast Asian states dislike tension but abhor even more the prospect of existing in a Chinese lake.
China has said it is “wrong” for the US to cite competition with China as one reason to pull out of the treaty and warns that doing so may well adversely affect the global strategic balance and stability. Closer to the truth is that Trump’s announcement will send a shiver down its spine. It is further indication that America will no longer compete with one hand tied behind its back.