US Withdrawal from INF Treaty: Implications for Asia Pacific
One of the motives behind the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty is its desire to acquire first-strike capability against Russia from Europe, while keeping intact its strategic nuclear arsenal. Another motivation is the need to keep China, America’s fiercest geopolitical challenger, in its crosshairs by forcing it to alter its foreign, defense, and trade policies in order to tip the balance in Washington’s favor. The capability to knock out key infrastructure sites with precision intermediate-range strikes deep inside China, not just in the coastal provinces, is one way to make Beijing more tractable on key issues and force a rollback of its global influence. In April, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US should renegotiate the INF Treaty to better compete with China. The admiral knew what he was talking about.
China has developed the DF-26 “aircraft carrier-killer” ballistic missile that has now rendered the old US strategy ineffective. Zachary Keck of the National Interest believes the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile could stop the US Navy in its tracks without firing a shot. That threat has to be countered and one way to do it is by knocking it out with land-based, highly accurate missiles. Such systems are cheaper than aircraft carriers and can do the job without exposing thousands of servicemen to the missile threat if used for a first strike. China has been testing a new nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missile constructed on the basis of the DF-21 that will help that country improve its warfighting capabilities. Beijing also boasts land-based mobile missile systems (LBMMS) with DF-10 cruise missiles that have a maximum range of 1,500 to 2,000 km. China has to defend itself, and fielding these systems is the only way that it can counteract America’s huge sea, space, and air advantages.
Actually, the process of encircling China with intermediate missiles is going to kick off with the deployment of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile-defense (BMD) systems Japan has decided to buy. The batteries will be installed in the prefectures of Akita and Yamaguchi. Using the MK-41 launcher, the Aegis Ashore can fire intermediate-range Tomahawk missiles. The deal is a blatant violation of the INF Treaty that Washington accuses Moscow of not complying with.
After a long period of indecision, the US approved the sale of military equipment to Taiwan in September, drawing China’s ire. Last summer, the State Department requested that US Marines be sent to Taiwan under the pretext of safeguarding America’s de facto embassy there. National Security Adviser John Bolton is known for his support of the idea of stationing US troops on Taiwanese soil. Bolton wants to see the China policy revisited. He argues that Taiwan is closer to the Chinese mainland and the disputed islands in the South China Sea than either Okinawa or Guam — giving US forces “greater flexibility for rapid deployment throughout the region should the need arise.” If the ongoing escalation continues, the US could wind up deploying intermediate-range missiles on that friendly island.
Other targets include North Korea and the Russian Far East, especially the Vilyuchinsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula that is home to a fleet of ballistic missile submarines.
Locating and destroying mobile land-based missiles, either from the air or from the ground, is an extremely challenging mission. Fast-flying ballistic delivery technology and stealthy cruise missiles are effective against a wide variety of targets, even if sophisticated air defenses are in place to protect them. The states in the region that are unfriendly to the United States would see their biggest military advantage erode away.
Intermediate-range weapons can accomplish the same missions as strategic weapons. With the high-precision technology the US possesses today, even conventional missiles could inflict damage comparable to that of nuclear strikes. Its ground-based assets boast large magazines and can have numerous reloads at the ready. In theory, the US could impose an arms-control agreement with China on its own terms, using theater weapons as its negotiating leverage. All the countries unfriendly to the US, such as China and North Korea, as well as Russia’s Far East area, will be within the range of fast-hitting, hard to counter, intermediate-range missile systems.
Moreover, with the arms race escalating in the Asia Pacific region, the US could involve itself in some lucrative deals selling conventional intermediate-range missile systems to the countries in that area, such as Japan. A conventional version of some of these weapons will be in high demand, bringing in substantial profits and spurring US economic growth.
So, the US is encouraging an arms race in the Asia Pacific region. It has adopted a policy of encirclement with its potential enemies in the crosshairs of its intermediate-range weapons. It will have the option of destroying key sites with conventional warheads. This policy will inevitably force Russia and China closer together. The militarization of the region will further accelerate. Those targeted by the US will be incentivized to develop weapons systems that can reach the continental US. No one will win and everyone will lose. There is still time to reverse the US decision to leave the INF Treaty.