Bring China and Its Neighbors under the INF Missile Treaty

As U.S. relations with Russia go from bad to worse, even old agreements seem at risk.  Such as the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.

The 1987 pact essentially cleared Europe of mid-range missiles (between 500 and 5500 kilometers).  But the State Department recently charged Moscow with violating the treaty.

The INF treaty has been to America’s advantage, since it does not cover U.S. military allies, such as Britain and France.  Even more important, the U.S. has no potentially hostile neighbors with such a capability, while Russia faces China, India, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Moscow officials have suggested that they may leave the agreement at some point.  To forestall that possibility the U.S. and Moscow should seek to include China and other regional powers in the pact.   

Although relations between Moscow and Washington obviously are strained, the U.S. should approach Russia about amending the INF Treaty to allow deployments in Asia, unless otherwise agreed.  The two governments should simultaneously propose that Beijing and its neighbors accede to the pact. 

Admittedly, winning signatures from other nations, especially China, would not be easy. The PRC believes its short- and medium-range missiles serve a significant security role. 

However, the PRC’s more aggressive approach to Asia-Pacific territorial issues has antagonized neighboring states.  Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in particular, are likely to become increasingly interested in developing countervailing missile capabilities. 

In the future the PRC may face a plethora of countervailing weapons deployed by several states. Then Beijing might view a ban as more to its liking. 

Negotiations over expanding the INF Treaty would make Beijing a full global partner on arms control, recognizing the country’s rising international status.  Although the PRC has tended to view such limits as a means of maintaining U.S. “hegemony,” Washington could suggest accession as the best means to forestall any further increase in U.S. military presence in the region as part of the famed “pivot” or “rebalance.” 

Some analysts instead advocate responding to the PRC’s military build-up by withdrawing from the pact and introducing comparable missiles.  As an alternative, David W. Kearn, Jr. of St. John’s University suggested enhancing U.S. offensive capabilities in the region and defensive responses to missile attacks. 

However, as I point out in China-US focus, “nearby nations should be responsible for maintaining regional security.  American policymakers should use expansion of the INF Treaty as a means to reduce U.S. defense obligations.”

China’s growing missile force challenges America’s dominance in Asia—most directly the ability to project power—not America’s survival at home.  The most likely contingency is an attack on Taiwan, which is quite different from a strike on the U.S.  The Cold War justification for America’s extensive military presence in the region has disappeared.

America’s friends and neighbors, no less than China, have prospered and are able to defend themselves.  That obviously is best for the U.S., since Beijing will always have an incentive to spend and risk more in its own neighborhood than will America. 

Restricting Washington’s role also would reduce the potential for a superpower confrontation over less than vital interests.  Ironically, America’s conventional superiority inflates the danger of a great power confrontation.  Explained Kearn:  “in a crisis or a conflict, regional adversaries may have incentives to escalate (or threaten escalation) against U.S. forces in the region or U.S. allies to de-escalate the crisis and ensure regime survival once the United States has become involved.”

Expanding the INF Treaty to Asia would help reduce growing military tensions and dampen geopolitical competition, especially over territorial issues.  Achieving this end won’t be easy, but it is an area where the U.S. and Russia can cooperate.  While China might initially be wary of joining such an effort, a new arms control regime would ultimately offer Beijing significant benefits as well.