Commentary

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 Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, or 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. Russia disputes the claim and responded with accusations of U.S. violations.

The INF treaty always has been to America’s advantage, since it does not cover U.S. military allies, such as Britain and France, which possess independent nuclear forces capable of striking Russia. Even more important, the U.S. has no potentially hostile neighbors with such a capability. In contrast, China, India, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan all possess or are developing intermediate range missiles capable of hitting Russia.

Expanding the INF Treaty to Asia would help reduce growing military tensions and dampen geopolitical competition, especially over territorial issues.

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. In the original negotiations, Moscow advocated exempting Asian deployments, but Washington demurred. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and America’s George W. Bush later suggested “the possibility of imparting a global character to” the INF Treaty, with the People’s Republic of China high on the list of potential invitees. 

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. No country could predict with certainty what would be gained or lost from joining. The PRC currently believes its short-and-medium-range missiles serve a significant security role, being directed against Taiwan to thwart an independence bid, the U.S. to forestall intervention against Beijing’s interests, and American allies to discourage an effort at containment. 

However, the PRC’s more aggressive approach to Asia-Pacific territorial issues has antagonized neighboring states and pushed them toward the United States. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in particular, are likely to become increasingly interested in developing countervailing missile capabilities. Tensions between Russia and China also remain despite increased bilateral cooperation. 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. Indeed, China has generally if reluctantly followed the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines without joining the system.

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.”

U.S. proposals for regional ballistic missile defense also could be part of the negotiations. After all, noted David W. Kearn, Jr. of St. John’s University, “the quantitative expansions of China’s missiles essentially have made U.S. ballistic missile defense cost-ineffective and unlikely to provide any more than a marginal contribution to defending forward-based assets in the event of a coordinated, large-scale attack.”

Some analysts instead advocate responding to the PRC’s military build-up by withdrawing from the pact and introducing comparable missiles. This ignores the reluctance of allied states to host them, especially for the defense of Taiwan. As an alternative, Kearn suggested enhancing U.S. offensive capabilities in the region and defensive responses to missile attacks. However, 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. During the Cold War, Washington worried about Soviet domination of Eurasian states weakened by World War II. That possibility has disappeared, leaving no similar justification for America’s extensive military presence in the region.

America’s friends and neighbors, no less than China, have prospered and are able to defend themselves. Just as China can deter the U.S., Beijing’s neighbors can deter the PRC. That obviously is best for America. Kearn admitted: “given the asymmetry of interests that exists in the Taiwan crisis scenario, it is unlikely that the United States is ever going to be able to completely overcome China’s ‘home field’ advantage in military terms.”

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.”

One of Washington’s primary objectives will remain constraining Chinese behavior. But that would be best achieved through a cooperative relationship, if possible. Treating Beijing as an enemy makes it more likely to become one, a dangerous definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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. And while China might initially be wary of joining such an effort, a new arms control regime would ultimately offer Beijing significant benefits as well.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.