BEPPU, OITA PREF. – The United States has announced its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signed in 1987 with the Soviet Union, the treaty banned the two signatories from developing and deploying ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. The U.S. mainland was never threatened by such intermediate-range missiles, with the brief exception of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The removal of U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles from the European theater was a result of reduced tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and contributed to the growing mood for nuclear arms reduction overall after the Cold War.
The U.S. intention to withdraw from the treaty is driven by multiple considerations. First, the U.S. sees Russian violations as problematic. For four years, the U.S. has been aware of Russian development of a new ground-based cruise missile. Russia has re-emphasized its nuclear forces as an economical means to counter the eastward expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War. Russian interventions in Ukraine show that Moscow is attempting to recreate its lost sphere of influence.
Second, the bilateral treaty never bound China, which deployed hundreds of intermediate-range ballistic missiles against U.S. bases in Asia and the Pacific. For both reasons, the treaty is outdated.
To address Russian and Chinese threats, however, withdrawing from the treaty was not a foregone conclusion for the U.S. The treaty only bans ground-based missiles, and the U.S. could counter Russian and Chinese threats with air- and sea-based missiles without leaving the treaty. To redeploy intermediate-range missiles on the ground, the U.S. needs the consent of its allies, however, and public opinion in major NATO members does not seem willing to host U.S. nuclear missiles, although some newer members closer to the Russian border may offer sites. Such a move, however, is likely to heighten tensions in Europe. In Asia, the U.S. would not find any willing host for its missiles.
A U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty will give it added flexibility. More importantly, however, U.S. abrogation would release Russia from the last and only hesitation to pursuing a flexible and multi-faceted nuclear strategy, of which intermediate-range nuclear missiles will play an important part. This flexibility suits Russia’s view of an emerging multipolar world order. Russia may not immediately deploy intermediate nuclear missiles in its Far Eastern territory, but its potential to do so checks both U.S. bases in Asia and China’s growing nuclear arsenals.
For European allies of the U.S., redeployment of intermediate-range missiles in the European theater raises issues of burden sharing and alliance credibility.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed frustration with low levels of defense spending by U.S. allies in Europe. At the same time, European states have increasing doubt about the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the face of reemerging threats from Russia. Redeployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe — if public opinion would allow them to be deployed — would reassure European allies of the U.S. commitment to their defense. For this to happen, however, Trump and European leaders have to clearly understand what the bargain is about. Deployment would be of mutual benefit to the Europe and the U.S., and neither side should attempt to demand concessions in other areas (such as trade).
Japanese political leaders have been quiet about Trump’s announcement over the INF. This is the right response, as the implications for Japan of the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty are complex and still unclear. U.S.-Russia competition in Europe co-exists with a shared concern about the growing Chinese nuclear arsenal. If the outdated INF treaty is to be replaced by a new trilateral or larger arms control framework that includes China, joint pressure by the U.S. and Russia on China is essential. Japan could benefit from such an outcome.
If the U.S. plan to pressure China entails deployment of nuclear-tipped intermediate ballistic missiles on Japanese soil, however, that would raise a serious domestic political issue in Japan, given Tokyo’s three non-nuclear principles that ban the “introduction” of nuclear weapons into Japanese territory. Japan has, however, agreed to “transit” passage of nuclear-armed U.S. vessels and planes through its territory.
Japan’s purchase of missile defense assets (such as Aegis Ashore) from the U.S. is a direct contribution to U.S. security against nuclear missile threats from North Korea and China. Japan’s role may move beyond the current defensive posture to taking part in pre-emptive strike if its perceived threat level rises further. Intermediate-range missiles can be used with conventional warheads, and nonnuclear attacks can be effective against nuclear-tipped missiles on mobile launchers on the ground (like the case of Chinese and North Korean missiles). The discussion in Japan about procurement of U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles needs to be viewed in this context.
Trump must not view Japan’s fear of Chinese and North Korean missiles as an opportunity to sell more missile defense platforms to Japan or seek favorable trade deals, however. Such a move would undermine the credibility of the U.S. defense commitment. The right U.S. approach in Asia is to balance against Chinese, North Korean and possible future Russian intermediate-range missile threats with sea-based and air-based missile platforms, while concurrently seeking a multilateral agreement to limit all intermediate-range missiles.
The initial effort does not have to rely on nuclear warheads. If the U.S. approach is to escalate and include redeployment of nuclear weapons on surface vessels, Japan should reassure the U.S. of its “transit” rights.
Yoichiro Sato is professor of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.
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