The land-based Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex in Kauai, Hawaii. Photo: US Missile Defense Agency via Reuters

Japan’s decision to buy the US-made Aegis Ashore anti-missile system has exacerbated tensions between the United States and Russia over their compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, broadening the dispute to Northeast Asia from its initial focus on Eastern Europe.

Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the arms-control department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Tuesday that the deployment of two Aegis Ashore anti-missile batteries in Japan constituted a new violation of the INF Treaty.

The Aegis Ashore system was first deployed in Romania in 2016, while Poland will complete its installation next year. Both deployments are part of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization’s ballistic-missile shield in Europe. Moscow has often denounced the positioning of the two anti-missile platforms on its doorstep as a breach of the INF Treaty.

The treaty prevents Washington and Moscow from producing and deploying ground-based projectiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It was agreed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987 when the Cold War was coming to an end.

Reciprocal accusations

Washington and Moscow accuse each other from time to time of violating the INF Treaty. The issue was first raised by the US government in 2014. This month, in his annual news conference on December 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Washington had practically withdrawn from the treaty by deploying Aegis Ashore units. The Kremlin believes this system is equipped with a launcher capable of firing both missile interceptors and intermediate projectiles.

The United States has always argued that NATO’s anti-missile systems are purely defensive and pose no threat to Moscow. Both the Pentagon and the State Department dispute Russian claims that the Aegis Ashore system can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles in violation of the INF Treaty. The US government says the Aegis Ashore launcher can only fire missile interceptors, as it does not have the necessary “software, fire-control hardware, additional support equipment and infrastructure” to launch a land-attack projectile.

NATO’s response to Putin’s accusations was immediate. On December 15, the Atlantic alliance stressed that the United States was in compliance with its obligations under the INF Treaty. In contrast, the military bloc said it was seriously concerned by a specific Russian missile system.

NATO was referring to the Novator 9M729 land-based cruise projectile, which the US government believes Moscow has positioned on its soil since 2016. But Washington has also raised doubts about Russia’s RS-26 Rubezh intercontinental ballistic missile, whose range could be reduced to below 5,500km with heavier payloads.

Japan and the US integrated missile defenses

Tokyo hit back at the Kremlin’s complaints as well. On Wednesday, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Russian news agency TASS that the installation of the Aegis Ashore system in the prefectures of Akita and Yamaguchi was solely for defensive purposes, also underlining that the two anti-missile units would be operated “independently” by the Japanese military – unlike the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-interceptor system in South Korea, which is managed by US troops.

The Aegis Ashore complex will add to Tokyo’s current defenses formed by Aegis-equipped warships and ground-based Patriot interceptors. In the first place, this three-layered defense shield is designed to protect the Asian country from North Korean ballistic missiles, as well as from Chinese cruise and ballistic projectiles.

However, Moscow is concerned that Japanese anti-missile launchers could be linked to the US integrated air and missile defense system, and that Tomahawk missiles could be launched from Aegis Ashore platforms on Japanese territory. The Donald Trump administration’s brand-new National Security Strategy, which the White House released on Monday, did not dispel Russian fears over Tokyo’s missile buildup. Indeed, the US president emphasized in the paper that Washington “will cooperate on missile defense with Japan and South Korea to move toward an area defense capability.”

Negotiating a multilateral deal

Russia has often questioned the feasibility of the INF Treaty, given that it binds only the two signatories. And in the Kremlin’s view, Japan is set to become yet another Asian nation that can deploy medium- and intermediate-range missiles to the detriment of Russian security, the others being China, Taiwan, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel.

Moscow’s concerns are actually aimed at China’s missile forces, particularly at its arsenal of cruise missiles and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic projectiles. Though the DF-26 is dubbed “Guam-Killer,” Russians know it can go in all directions. That’s likely one of the reasons Moscow does not consider integrating its missile-defense assets with those of China despite the two countries having conducted several joint anti-missile exercises during the past year.

Missile proliferation in Northeast Asia is critically contributing to the INF Treaty’s slow death. Regardless of US-Russian bickering over the correct application of its provisions, a new version of the treaty including participants other than Washington and Moscow should be negotiated to ensure its survival.

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Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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