US President Donald Trump, with National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L). Neither Trump nor and Bolton are known to be keen on arms treaties. Photo: AFP/Lars Hagberg
US President Donald Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton (R). Trump and Bolton are known to have an unfavorable opinion of arms treaties. Photo: AFP/Lars Hagberg

A recent decision by the Trump administration could have major implications for defense and security in Asia, although you could be forgiven for missing it, what with the Democratic landslide in the midterm elections and the Mueller investigation causing near-daily meltdowns by America’s commander-in-chief.

The decision the Trump administration announced was that the US will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days, unless Russia stops testing weapons that Washington says are in violation of the agreement.

The INF Treaty was the capstone of arms control efforts undertaken during the late 1980s, a deal signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ban the development, production and deployment of nuclear-tipped ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles with a range greater than 500 kilometers and less than 5,500 kilometers.

The agreement came about after the Soviets started deploying intermediate-range missiles such as the SS-20 in Eastern Europe in the late 1970s. Given its mobility, load and accuracy, the SS-20 was regarded as a highly effective offensive nuclear weapon that threatened all of NATO Europe. After considerable and often acrimonious debate, NATO responded by emplacing its own INF in Western Europe, mainly the Pershing II ballistic missile and the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM).

It was a move that caused considerable protest in Western Europe, with anti-nuclear marches, demonstrations and sit-ins at US bases across Europe. But the NATO INF deployments had their political effect in bringing the Gorbachev regime to the negotiating table, and the INF Treaty was the first agreement to effectively ban a whole class of nuclear forces, at least by the US and Russia. Within three years of its coming into force, nearly 2,700 missiles were withdrawn and destroyed.

Why Trump wants to leave the treaty

Flash forward to 2018. Trump’s foreign policy coterie, led by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton – a man who was never a fan of arms control agreements – has accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty by continuing to test two types of missiles.

The first is the SSC-8 cruise missile, reportedly a ground-launched version of the ship- and submarine-based Kalibr missile system. The INF Treaty does not apply to sea-based or air-launched intermediate-range delivery vehicles.

Russia has been testing the SSC-8 for the past decade and it supposedly has a range of 2,500 kilometers, placing it clearly within the banned zone.

Second, Moscow is also working on a ballistic missile designated the RS-26. Although technically an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), that is, with a range greater than 5,500 kilometers, the RS-26 has been test-fired at distances of about 2,000 kilometers, potentially making it an INF weapon in disguise.

Cutting off its nose to spite its face

Washington’s threat to leave the agreement has supporters outside the administration. The alleged non-compliance was first noted by the Obama administration and a number of Trump critics, including lapsed neoconservative Max Boot, have voiced their support for pulling out of the INF Treaty.

Still, it is a dangerous bluff. If Washington finds itself dissatisfied with Moscow’s responses and withdraws from the agreement, it simply leaves the field clear for Russia to quickly saturate its European territory with already available INF systems.

In the meantime, the US has no plans or programs even under consideration for reintroducing such forces to NATO Europe. At the same time, it is highly unlikely Western Europe would ever readily agree to reintroducing such weapons on their territories, especially given the current chill in transatlantic relations – which are mostly of Trump’s own making.

The US would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Just about China?

More to the point, it is likely that the Trump administration is concerned more about the build-up of Chinese nuclear forces than it is about Russia. The INF Treaty applies only to the US and Russia, and China has been steadily expanding its stable of medium- and intermediate-range nuclear forces for decades.

More importantly, it has significantly built up its strategic nuclear forces, which now stands at about 50-60 ICBMs, particularly road-mobile, solid-fueled rockets.

The US argument inferred here is that Washington lacks the capacity to deploy countering nuclear forces closer to China and that it therefore needs ground-based INF in Asia.

There are two things wrong with this line of reasoning. In the first place, the US already has considerable numbers of INF systems dedicated to Asia. These include the sea-based Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile (TLAM), which can be launched from both surface ships and submarines, and the AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which will soon be replaced by new Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) Weapon.

A few more land-based GLCMs are not going to make that much of a difference.

Second, like Western Europe, it is hard to see any Asian ally or partner agreeing to permit the deployment of INF on their territories. Certainly not Japan, with its decades-old, baked-in anti-nuclearism. And certainly not South Korea, which experienced major convulsions just trying to deploy what basically is a defensive weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

And certainly not Australia, the Philippines or Singapore – the potential political consequences of angering China are just too great, compared with any potential strategic gain.

In short, any kind of INF in Asia is a non-starter. The US does not need INF to counter China or Russia, it has no place to put them in Asia, and it would force Washington to waste money on yet another misguided military program it can ill-afford.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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