Chinese missile build-up has also strained US-Russia nuclear arms pact

  • America’s nuclear treaty ultimatum is as much about China as it is Russia
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 11:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 11:22am

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Gregory Hellman on on October 22, 2018.

US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a landmark arms control treaty with Russia comes after nearly a year of appeals from top military leaders to confront China’s rising missile ambitions – perhaps the real target of the move.

Trump told reporters Monday outside the White House that Beijing's growing arsenal played into his decision to withdraw from the cold war-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, even though China is not a party to the pact.

His justification “includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game,” Trump said.

“You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me,” he added.

Trump also restated the evidence that Moscow has been violating the treaty by deploying a banned weapon, a complaint his administration has voiced before.

But some US military officials have asserted for months that if China was unwilling to sign on to the treaty American forces will be “hamstrung” by Beijing’s growing arsenal of ground-based missiles – 90 per cent of which would be outlawed if it were a party to the treaty – and need the freedom to boost their own missile forces in the region.

Donald Trump ‘targets’ China by pulling out of missile deal with Russia

“There’s a military imbalance in Asia that we’re worried about,” said Eric Sayers, who served as a special assistant to retired Navy Admiral Harry Harris, who was the top US military commander in the Pacific before becoming US ambassador to South Korea.

“China’s pursued a missile-based strategy.”

The so-called 1987 INF Treaty banned land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres in an effort to prevent highly destabilising missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads from being deployed along the borders of Europe.

It was negotiated by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and ratified by the US Senate and the Russian Duma.

Trump over the weekend cited as his main rationale for abandoning the American commitment Russia's violation of the pact beginning in 2014.

“And I don't know why President Obama didn't negotiate or pull out,” Trump said at a campaign rally. “And we're not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we're not allowed to. We're the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we've honoured the agreement.

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“But Russia has not, unfortunately, honoured the agreement. So we're going to terminate the agreement. We're gonna pull out,” Trump added.

Publicly at least, both the Pentagon and State Department have until now maintained that finding ways to compel Russia to comply with the INF treaty was preferable than scrapping it altogether.

On Monday a Pentagon spokesman said Defence Secretary James Mattis “is completely aligned with the president, and he is in close contact with the president on this”.

Army Colonel Rob Manning declined to answer whether Trump had conferred with Mattis before making the decision but noted “the secretary has publicly started that Russia has not been in compliance with the treaty”.

Mattis told reporters earlier this month that “the current situation with Russia in blatant violation of this treaty is untenable.”

Russia, which has long denied it is violating the treaty, fired back on Monday.

“Russia is and has been devoted to the clauses of the agreement, and we think the intention of the U.S. to withdraw is, of course, concerning because such steps, if taken, can make the world a more dangerous place,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Yet the decision also comes following a nearly year-long push by top US military officials in the Pacific to either find ways to bring China into the treaty or develop new American weapons to counter it.

“We’re hamstrung in a number of ways, one of which is some of our treaties are self-limiting in my opinion,” Harris testified before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

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“And we have no missiles that can meet [China’s] capability from the ground.”

Last year, Beijing also displayed a new medium-range ballistic missile during a military parade it boasted is capable of “precision strikes against ground targets and conventional strikes against naval targets” across the region, the Pentagon reported in its 2018 report to Congress on military developments in China.

Not all US military officials have agreed, however, that the US needs to counter Beijing's build-up of land-based missiles with weapons of its own banned under the INF Treaty.

Air Force General Paul Selva, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has asserted that describing the INF Treaty as hindering the US military against China is “a bridge too far”.

While the INF Treaty bans intermediate-range ground-launched missiles, it doesn't prohibit the US from developing and deploying missiles with similar ranges that are fired from warships or submarines and aircraft, Selva has said.

Indeed, sea-launched and air-launched systems are likely far better suited for the Pacific region any way, Jim Miller, who previously served as under secretary of defence for policy in the Obama administration, told reporters on Monday.

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“For the Asia-Pacific theatre, there’s a great advantage to both undersea where U.S. has dominance … and to airborne systems,” Miller said.

“Particularly long-range stealthy systems that can deliver munitions and provide a more capable and credible counter to Chinese capabilities.”

There could also be another way to keep the INF treaty alive, according to John Holdren, a former science adviser to President Barack Obama who is now a scholar at Harvard University's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affair.

Holdrem, who was involved in the original discussions that led to the INF Treaty in the mid-1980s, said in an interview that there has not been any formal effort that he knows of to try to engage the Chinese on the issue.

“The United States should try to address the fact that China is not a party by negotiating a new treaty with that country or with China and China,” he added in a statement.

Trump appeared to agree, telling reporters Monday: “They should be included.”

Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.