Revocation of INF treaty may fuel unprecedented weapons proliferation

By Guo Xiaobing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/8/7 20:46:18

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and US president Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on December 8, 1987. Photo: IC

The US officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on Friday. The demise of the pact will intensify the US-Russia arms race, increase the risks of confrontation in the Eurasian region and undermine international weapons of mass destruction (WMD) non-proliferation and arms control mechanisms. 

The INF treaty was a landmark arms control accord signed by the US and Soviet Union in 1987. It had led to the destruction of nearly 2,700 cruise and ballistic nuclear missiles and the banning of the development and deployment of ground-based missiles with a range of 500 kilometers (km) to 5,500 km, putting an end to years of competition in intermediate-range missiles between the US and Soviet Union. However, the termination of the treaty means the start of a new US-Russia contest in armaments.

US President Donald Trump's administration has requested nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2020 to develop three new types of medium-range missile systems. The first of these, believed to be a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of about 1,000 km, is due to be tested in August. It's reported the US is also looking to test a medium-range ballistic missile, with a range of up to 4,000 km, in November. 

The US accused Russia of violating the INF treaty by developing and deploying a new type of missile, the 9M729, which has been denied by Russia. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered to suspend Moscow's implementation of the INF treaty as a response to Washington's decision to end its obligations under the pact. Putin warned on Monday that Russia would start developing short- and intermediate-range land-based nuclear missiles if the US started doing the same. 

The risks of US-Russia arms race have aroused concern in the international community. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that "the world will lose an invaluable brake on nuclear war" with the demise of the INF treaty. "This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles," he said. 

The demise of the treaty has also caused instability in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region. 

The US has long planned to deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles in Europe. Brian P. McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said in December 2014 that the Pentagon was considering the re-deployment of nuclear cruise missiles in Europe. Russia doesn't want Europe to see a missile crisis again. But Putin said Russia would not deploy missiles unless the US put its missiles in areas that may threaten Russia. Otherwise, Russia would also aim its missiles at US launch sites in NATO members. According to Deutsche Welle, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the end of the INF treaty meant that Europe was "losing part of its security."

The demise of the INF treaty will have a more complicated impact on the Indo-Pacific region. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday that he was in favor of placing ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia relatively soon. 

In the future, the US may seek to deploy ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Guam, Diego Garcia and so on, cooperating with air-based and sea-based armed capabilities to threaten China and Russia. This may trigger major power confrontations and bring about the Asian version of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It could also lead to tensions between China, Russia and US Indo-Pacific allies.  

Moreover, the collapse of the INF treaty will be a blow to international WMD non-proliferation and arms control mechanisms. With Russia and the US leaving the INF treaty, the New START has become the only remaining strategic nuclear arms control agreement in place between the two countries. But as the New START will expire in 2021, the prospect of whether it will be extended is dim. Besides, the demise of the INF treaty will stimulate other countries to develop intermediate-range missiles, which will not help properly solve hot-button issues such as the Korean Peninsula and Iran nuclear crises. 

In order to dilute the negative impact the withdrawal has brought to US image, Washington is now seeking the internalization of the INF treaty, advocating a new arms control pact that will also include other countries that have land-based intermediate-range missiles such as China. But the proposition is unreasonable and unrealistic.  

Compared to other countries, the US and Russia have absolute advantages in long-range missile capabilities. The US has strong military deployment in the Indo-Pacific region, Middle East and Europe. Regional balance of power must be taken into account in arms control on intermediate-range missiles. Attempts to internationalize the INF treaty are doomed to fail as few countries would respond. 

The author is deputy director and research professor, Institute of Arms Control and Security Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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