The United States announced last Friday that Russian cheating obliged it to suspend participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, paving the way for its eventual withdrawal. Moscow denied the charge but promptly said that it would abandon the agreement as well. While the INF was designed to promote arms control and security in Europe, its collapse will reverberate throughout Asia as well. A renewed arms race is a likely outcome. While arms control treaties must be observed to be useful, greater efforts must be made to preserve this agreement.

The INF treaty was a critical element of European security during the Cold War. Agreed by the U.S. and Russia in 1987, it eliminated more than 2,500 missiles, nuclear and conventional with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km, deployed by the two countries that would have been used across Europe during a conflict.

U.S. governments have complained since 2008 that Russia was violating the treaty, pointing to a series of cruise missile tests. Moscow denied the accusation and countered that U.S. deployment of missile defense systems in Europe is the real treaty violation, a charge that the U.S. denies. Washington warned several months ago that Russian noncompliance threatened the treaty’s survival and last week the Trump administration made good on that commitment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that the U.S. government had complained over 30 times and “Russia’s violation puts millions of Europeans and Americans at greater risk, it aims to put the United States at a military disadvantage, and it undercuts the chances of moving our bilateral relationship in a better direction. … When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded and our security is so openly threatened, we must respond.” Russian President Vladimir Putin promised “a tit-for-tat response … we will suspend as well.” He said that Russia would begin work on developing new missiles and modifying old ones, but deployment would depend on U.S. actions.

Russian cheating is one reason for the Trump administration’s decision, but there is more to U.S. disaffection with the treaty than that. Some U.S. officials have long chafed at the restrictions on U.S. force deployments that it created, but they overlook the U.S. systems — air and sea-based — that it does not affect.

Another, more compelling, complaint is that the treaty does not include many other countries that have or are developing missile programs; China is on that list. U.S. officials note that China has deployed over 1,000 missiles that would be banned by the INF if Beijing were a signatory. President Donald Trump has complained that the U.S. “cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other.” He prefers a new, multilateral treaty that includes those other countries. There is little chance of that.

China called the U.S. and Russian announcements “regrettable,” and called on the two governments “to uphold and implement the existing treaty instead of creating a new one.”

The Japanese government reaction was negative as well. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the U.S. move “undesirable,” adding that he hoped that Washington would not withdraw. Foreign Minister Taro Kono agreed treaty suspension was not desirable, but U.S. thinking was understandable.

Japan has three concerns. The first is the prospect of a destabilizing arms race between the U.S. and Russia. Not only could the two sides deploy missiles previously banned under the INF — and not only in Europe but in Asia as well — but their antipathy toward such agreements could doom the New START treaty, the last remaining limit on strategic arms, which is set to expire in 2021 (unless renewed for five more years). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that “the New START treaty may have the same fate as the INF Treaty.” A nuclear arms race between the world’s two largest nuclear powers threatens the world.

A second concern is that deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow would make more difficult Japan’s attempts to negotiate with Russia over the Northern Territories dispute. If the demise of the INF reflects U.S. policy toward Russia and is the harbinger of a new Cold War, Japanese diplomacy will likely be impacted. A third concern of Japan is that U.S. attempts to rectify the imbalance with China will produce pressure for U.S. deployments of new missiles on Japanese territory. While Japan’s defense community worries about China’s expanding arsenal of missiles, there is no appetite for U.S. deployments that would give Beijing more reason to target Japan in the event of a conflict.

Treaties must be observed to be valuable, but withdrawal and termination should only be a last resort. There is still time for diplomacy to save the INF. Washington and Moscow should redouble their efforts to do that.

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