The INF treaty was terminated in August 2019. The demise of the pact occurs amidst a worsening global security environment, shaped by the growing rivalry between China and the US. This article explores three possible scenarios for the consequences of the termination of the landmark agreement in one of the world’s most volatile region, Asia Pacific.
In 1987, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. For the first time, a whole category of nuclear weapons was banned. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty stood as a landmark for its three decades of contribution to strategic stability.
this is already undone. On August 2, 2019, the US, formally withdrew from the
INF Treaty, citing Russia’s violations of the pact.
move was a long time coming. Since the mid-2000s, the US has been
accusing Russia of violating the INF treaty and many in Washington had called
for its abrogation. The Kremlin, which foreseeably
denied any wrongdoing, had also accused Washington of breaching the
Donald Trump’s administration gave a new impetus to the skepticism of the pact, after declaring that Moscow had deployed the system and pursued sanctions against Russia. In February 2019, the US, followed by Russia, initiated the formalities that led to the expiration of the agreement.
the blame-game, by terminating the INF, Russia and the US intended to create
momentum to draw China into arms control agreements. Both Washington and Moscow have called upon
China to negotiate a multilateral arms control treaty. In the early 2000s, Moscow
even suggested leaving the INF, given that other
countries possessed INF-banned weapons.
missiles are the cornerstone of Beijing’s challenge to U.S. dominance in the Pacific. Its
missile-centric military build-up is foundational to China’s A2/D2, which aims
at deterring or defeating the US in a regional conflict.
China urged the US and Russia not to withdraw, it continues to reject the
multilateralization of arms control mechanisms, on the bases that it owns fewer nukes than the big nuclear
powers. The tricky issue, Andrew Erickson notes, is that arms control debates over-focus
on nuclear weapons, whereas China’s arsenal of conventional missiles exceeds
its nuclear arsenal by a ratio of at least 7:1.
now for Asia Pacific?
INF-prohibited weapons are substantially easier and cheaper to develop and operate than sea or air-based missiles. So far, the INF has given China an advantage; as the US had had to rely on sea and air-based missiles, which besides being significantly more expensive, have other limitations. This has made the status quo unsustainable to the eyes of US officials.
Chinese are anxious that U.S. missile development could open the door for a
more aggressive US nuclear policy. Current perceptions
of U.S. ambitions and Beijing’s assertiveness could create the
perfect mix for an arms race. This is particularly true given that relations
are worsening by the day and could further spiral with the disruption of
strategic stability frameworks.
The inherent dangers of a US-China arms race are evident. The missiles of the type covered by the INF treaty were prohibited because the difficulty to neutralize them exacerbate the chances of miscalculation and therefore of an accidental nuclear war.
there is more. Tensions could spill-over throughout the region. China’s
re-adjustments could also trigger a response by India which would likely generate
a reaction by Pakistan. Furthermore, a US build-up could further strain disarmament
talks with North Korea, or even provide an incentive for the further development
of its nuclear program.
This would be another step on the road of growing tensions and mistrust in US-Russia relations but would also accelerate Sino-Russian rapprochement. Although a military build-up on either side could burden the bilateral relations, Russia’s inability to keep up with the US and China in an arms race will force Moscow to keep cool its relations with its neighbor.
A key trigger for the development of this scenario would be the response by U.S. regional Allies. That is if they decide to host U.S. missiles or not, as this will substantially influence Chinese threat assessment and response.
Washington will likely place its missiles in Guam but it will also seek to convince South Korea, Japan, and Australia to host some of its ground-launched missiles. So far, none of these countries have rushed forward. Hosting such missiles could increase their vulnerability in the event of a conflict and strain their relations with Beijing. China has already explicitly warned its neighbors that hosting these missiles is not in their best interest. Evidence from its reaction to Korea’s decision to host the THAAD suggests that Beijing is serious about it.
the collapse of the treaty might trigger an arms race, the opposite may also be
true. Although getting the three parties to agree may seem illusory for many, there are some reasons
two big nuclear powers are eager to sign a multilateral agreement. Outside the
INF, the US can comfortably outspend Beijing and challenge its
position in the Pacific. Faced with this scenario, China may reconsider this
is true that the Chinese government has energetically rejected such an
agreement but this would not be the first time that China shifts its approaches to foreign
in recent years. Despite the perception that getting the three parties to
negotiate is an elusive attainment, the celebration of security talks during
Obama’s presidency and the Sino-American militaries’ nuclear dialogue add some
encouragement to this possibility.
last and more likely scenario is one with a combination of tensions,
competition and limited cooperation.
U.S. missiles deployment will certainly spark some military tensions, but an all-out arms-race might not necessarily happen, particularly if US allies refuse to host its missiles. Yet, the termination of the treaty would strain China’s steady military development, as significant resources would need to be diverted to missile defense. US deployment in the region would expand US military and diplomatic leverage to deal with the Chinese assertiveness and reinforce the waning confidence of the allies in the US. All this could lead to a de-escalation of its assertiveness in the region and even persuade the three parties to accept some limitations to favor the continuation of containment in Asia.
What about North Korea? On the one hand, these weapons could provide incentives for Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program. However, the US’s. renewed posture could also act as a deterrent and therefore impart a boost to the denuclearization of the peninsula.
fraying security architecture
The INF is not the first pillar to tumble, but rather the latest installment in the collapse of a fraying strategic stability framework. The George W. Bush administration pulled out of the ABM. This, together with the U.S. termination of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea and the nuclear deal with Iran adds to countries’ skepticism regarding security agreements.
The INF was not the first pillar to collapse and it might also not be last. The New Start treaty, the last arms control agreement, will expire in 2021. The climate of distrust that follows the collapse of the INF makes the renegotiation of the New Start follow on much more difficult. Its expiration would leave Russia and the US for the first time in decades without the ability to verify each other’s weapons.
Yet the fate of the New Start Treaty is one of the many fundamental questions that remain unanswered. To what extent will the US deploy its missiles? What will be other powers’ responses? The answers to these questions will invariably shape the future of Asian security. There is some room for optimism. However, a world without arms control mechanisms would “be less stable, less predictable and less secure”.