This Week in Asia

The cold war INF nuclear treaty is dead, killed by rise of China and Trump. A global arms race is next

SECRETARY OF State Mike Pompeo has notified Moscow that the US will suspend its adherence to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and withdraw from the landmark treaty within six months of February 2, unless Russia proves its full compliance with the pact.

The treaty signed by US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987, bans production, flight-testing, and possession of all ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of between 500km and 5,500km.

Currently Washington is accusing Moscow of violating the treaty by testing the ground-launched cruise missile SSC-8, designated as 9M729 in Russia. Moscow denies this, saying the missile has not been developed and tested for the banned range. Last month, a Russian commander, General Mikhail Matveyevsky, announced its maximum flight range as 480km. The US remains unconvinced, citing intelligence data.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Xinhua

To save the treaty, Moscow began bilateral negotiations in Geneva on January 15. These ended in failure. The US side was prepared to discuss nothing but the details of the SSC-8 elimination while Russia pressed for a comprehensive discussion. Obviously, the perception gap cannot be bridged.

Apparently, US President Donald Trump had made up his mind to abandon the treaty before announcing his intention in a speech last October. The reasons he cited were Russia's alleged violations and China's military build-up. Visiting Moscow later that month, his National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly told his Russian counterparts that the political decision had already been made.

If so, from that moment on, the only work left for the Washington administration has been to arrange the pull-out. Among other things, it has to win the consent of its Western European allies unhappy about the treaty termination " as it will be them, not America, who will be exposed to the missiles Russia may deploy once the accord becomes invalid. In this context, after all, it may be not so important if the SSC-8 really violates the terms of the treaty or not " for Washington, the most important thing is to create the pretext for quitting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with US National Security Adviser John Bolton in Russia. Photo: EPA

That is why this time the American side showed absolutely no inclination to talk or listen, ignoring Moscow's proposals to discuss mutual concerns, to send experts to see the missile in question and to conduct its test launches in the presence of US inspectors.

Moreover, Washington refused to discuss any transparency measures or listen to Russia's concerns about its own compliance: for example, Moscow is wary about America's Mk-41 vertical launch systems for missile interceptors deployed in Romania and due to be employed in Poland because they can launch ground-based cruise missiles as well.

The Russian administration has been seeking to preserve the treaty, considering it an important arms control arrangement. But Russia's own realities are complicated. In its military and political establishment the treaty has been criticised for a wide variety of reasons: too great concessions to America by Gorbachev (the USSR destroyed twice as many missiles as the US); the need to target US missile defence systems in Europe, and so on.

Among the major concerns have been ground-based medium range missiles possessed by countries such as China, Iran, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel.

Back in 2005, Russian officials showed interest in withdrawing from the treaty together with the US. In 2007, Putin expressed concern over the fielding of intermediate-range missiles without any limitations by third countries and proposed to make the INF treaty global in scope. The US and Russia even jointly called on third countries to eliminate this type of weapon.

Today, though calling for the preservation of the treaty, the Russian side is ready to do without it. Its response is going to be simple: if America starts deploying the missiles, it will do the same.

Indeed, the arms control structure of the cold war era with Moscow-Washington accords at its core is getting obsolete " the INF treaty being no exception. Without participation of other nations, especially China with its dramatically rising military power, its ability to address international security challenges of the 21st century is destined to decline. Also, within its framework both Washington and Moscow may be at a loss, bound by constraints other players don't face.

Apparently, this is the major reason why Trump has decided to quit " in the Trumpian spontaneous and non-ceremonial manner. This decision perfectly fits his "America first" dogma, founded on the belief that Washington's international obligations are a nuisance and an impediment for pursuing national interests.

Trump's decision to quit the INF fits his 'America first' dogma. Photo: AFP

The immediate consequences of the treaty termination won't be so dramatic. Initially its aim was to address a particular issue in East-West relations of the late 1980s: the imbalance caused by the deployment the Soviet SS-20 missiles targeting western Europe. Its contribution to international arms control is limited as it bans only ground-based missiles, leaving sea-based and air-based missiles of the same range beyond control.

Will America embark on a large-scale deployment of the currently banned missiles in Europe? Hardly. In Western European countries it would meet stiff resistance from both the governments and the general public. There may be some small-scale deployment in the central European countries, apprehensive about the policies of today's Russia, but deployment on a substantial scale is hardly possible there either because the Russian missiles deployed in response would threaten the security of all Europeans.

What about the Asia-Pacific? No doubt, Washington's major strategic goal in this region is to contain China, and to achieve this goal it is seeking a level playing field to develop all kinds of weapons, ground-based intermediate-range missiles included. However, there are very few platforms where American ground-based missiles can be deployed. Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries are apparently out of the question: no government would think it worth the risk of angering their own public and Beijing. What does that leave? Presumably, just Guam and Alaska.

America's security strategy has been to rely on sea-based and air-based intermediate-range missiles, and this pattern is unlikely to change. Major concerns about terminating the treaty are of a more fundamental character. The Trump administration is initiating one more step towards the demolition of the international arms control structure its predecessors created together with Moscow. While the existing structure is being demolished, no steps are being taken to create a new one. Furthermore, such steps are hardly feasible in the wake of America's deteriorating relations with China and Russia and Trump's idiosyncrasy towards international obligations.

Ivan Tselichtchev is a professor and faculty dean at the Niigata University of Management in Japan and the author of China Versus the West: The Global Power Shift of the 21st Century

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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