During the Cold War, the nuclear landscape was dominated by the globe-spanning U.S.–Soviet bipolar rivalry. Russia and the United States still account for over 90 percent of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. The emerging strategic rivalry, however, is between the U.S. as the weakening hegemon and China as the rising comprehensive national power. This is why Washington decided it could no longer ignore the nuclear challenge to its interests in the vast Indo–Pacific maritime space posed by China’s absence from the missile prohibitions of the INF treaty. About 95 percent of China’s missiles are in the INF range, enabling it to target forward-deployed U.S. forces and allied territory, including Japan, Guam and Australia, with relatively inexpensive precision-strike conventional capability.
Without INF restrictions, the U.S. can develop and station ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missiles in Guam, Japan, South Korea, and northern Australia that could reach deep into China’s interior. However, the search for Pacific allies prepared to host intermediate range conventional U.S. missiles aimed at China will be challenging, with the downsides in bilateral relations with China and domestic political opposition likely to outweigh potential military advantages.