The United States last Friday officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an arms control pact that had rid the world of more than 2,600 U.S. and Russian nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles. The U.S. had long-standing complaints about Russian compliance with the agreement — charges that Russia both denied and threw back at Washington — and Moscow’s refusal to take them seriously prompted the Trump administration to pull out of the treaty. China’s exclusion from the agreement also weighed heavily on U.S. thinking. The world must now brace for deployments of new missiles in Europe and Asia, moves that will trigger tensions and impact security in both theaters.
The INF treaty was negotiated in the mid-1980s by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It banned all ground-based missile systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. Because of Japanese fears that restricting the treaty’s scope to Europe would result in the redeployment of those systems to Asia, a global ban resulted.
Several years ago, the U.S. complained to Russia that Moscow was violating the terms of the treaty by developing a new land-based, nuclear-capable cruise missile, the 9M729 missile. Russia first denied that the missile existed but then claimed that its range was too short to qualify for inclusion in the INF. Earlier this year, Washington warned that Russia had six months to return to compliance with the treaty — i.e., eliminate the new missile — or it would pull out.
Last week, those six months expired and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that “The U.S. will not remain party to a treaty when others violate it. Russia bears sole responsibility.” Russia denied the accusations. A statement issued by the Foreign Ministry blamed the U.S. for undermining the treaty in an attempt to justify the development of new weapons. Russian officials also warned that Moscow will match any new U.S. deployments. An arms race seems certain.
Washington had another complaint, however. The U.S. is increasingly concerned about China’s growing military capabilities, and experts charge that 95 percent of its inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles would violate the treaty. But China is not a signatory and thus Beijing enjoys a great advantage in a theater of growing importance.
It is important to note, however, that the INF only applies to ground-based systems: The U.S. still deploys air- and sea-launched systems. U.S. President Donald Trump has said that he wants a trilateral treaty that would include China and that “China was very, very excited about talking about it and so was Russia.”
China disagrees. Its ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, insisted that the U.S. was using his country as “an excuse” to leave the treaty and while “the United States is saying China should be a party in this disarmament agreement … everybody knows that China is not at the same level with the United States and the Russian Federation.”
This decision has profound implications for Japan. The end of the treaty means that Russia can now deploy those weapons against this country, which is not a far-fetched notion given the persistence of a territorial dispute with Japan over the Northern Territories. In addition, Washington is likely to ask Japan to accept the deployment of new missiles on its territory as part of its effort to redress China’s advantage. The new U.S. secretary of defense, Mike Esper, said that he wanted to deploy ground-based conventional missiles in Asia as soon as possible after U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty. He conceded, however, that deployments would likely take some time.
The Japanese government is torn. It is committed to arms control and there is concern that the end of the INF could presage termination of the only remaining such agreement, the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) between the U.S. and Russia, which is set to expire in 2021. The end of both deals would leave a world threatened by unbridled arms races and the dangers that would ensue. At the same time, however, Japan feels threatened by China’s expansive missile arsenal. Many of those weapons would target Japanese territory or assets in a crisis and the best way to ensure that Beijing is not tempted to use them is to have similar systems that can hold Chinese assets at risk.
To be clear, we must consider only nonnuclear or conventional systems. Japan must remain committed to its nonnuclear status and that includes banning the deployment of U.S. nuclear systems on Japanese territory. Such a decision can only follow a long process of consultation, one in which Japan is treated as a partner and co-equal decision maker. And while some may oppose such a move as dangerous and potentially accelerating an arms race, it may also be the only way to force China to take seriously its own obligations to promote arms control.