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US Department of Defence conducted a flight test of a conventionally configured ground-launched cruise missile at San Nicolas Island on Monday. Photo: AFP

New arms race fears as China and Russia blast US over missile test

  • US conducts flight test of a cruise missile, sending a signal of determination to develop intermediate-range capabilities
  • Comes weeks after pulling out of a treaty with Russia that barred testing and deploying such technology
Russia and China on Tuesday accused the United States of ramping up military tensions with a new missile test, weeks after Washington and Moscow tore up a cold war-era pact and sparked fears of a fresh arms race.

The United States and Russia ditched the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty this month after accusing each other of violating the deal.

“This measure from the US will trigger a new round of an arms race, leading to an escalation of military confrontation, which will have a serious negative impact on the international and regional security situation,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in Beijing.

Geng said that the US should “let go of its cold war mentality” and “do more things that are conducive to... international and regional peace and tranquillity”.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the new US test was a “cause of regret”.

“The US has obviously taken a course towards escalation of military tensions. We won’t react to provocations,” Ryabkov told state news agency TASS.

The Pentagon announced it had launched a medium-range ground-launched cruise missile on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

The US Department of Defence announced on Monday it had tested a type of ground-launched missile that was banned under the 1987 INF agreement, which limited the use of nuclear and conventional medium-range weapons.

The missile was launched from the US Navy-controlled San Nicolas Island off the coast of California.

“We will not allow ourselves to get drawn into a costly arms race,” Ryabkov said.

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He said the test showed Washington had been working on such missiles long before its official withdrawal from the deal.

Ryabkov added that Moscow would refrain from using such missile systems “if and when we get them, as long as the US does not deploy them anywhere in the world”.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and late US President Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the White House in 1987. Photo: Reuters

Speaking in France Monday before news of the US test launch broke, President Vladimir Putin also said that Russia would only deploy medium or shorter-range missiles in response to similar moves from the US.

“If the United States produces such offensive systems, we will also do so,” Putin said at a press conference before meetings with French leader Emmanuel Macron.

Moscow and Washington have long criticised the treaty but Putin said it was the US that made the decision to “unilaterally” withdraw.

US officials had said for a number of months that they planned to carry out the test in August. The United States plans to test an intermediate-range ballistic missile in November.

Moscow denies flouting the accord and has accused Washington of breaking the pact, allegations rejected by the United States.

The dispute is aggravating the worst US-Russia friction since the cold war ended in 1991.

The missile tested on Sunday was a version of the nuclear-capable Tomahawk cruise missile.

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The ground-launched version of the Tomahawk was removed from service after the INF was ratified.

This month, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said the US had already begun work to develop “mobile, conventional, ground-launched cruise and ballistic missile systems”.

“Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defence will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions,” Esper said.

But he also stressed the US was not embarking on a new arms race.

“The traditional sense of an arms race has been in a nuclear context,” he said.

“Right now, we don’t have plans to build nuclear-tipped INF-range weapons. It’s the Russians who have developed non-compliant likely, possibly nuclear-tipped weapons,” he said.

The INF banned all land-based missiles that could travel between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (310 and 3,400 miles), in an effort to abolish the class of nuclear arms that then most threatened Europe.

“This is a very clear sign that the United States and Russia are on the verge of a new missile race,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which opposed withdrawing from the treaty.

He said Russia would match deployment of such weapons “missile for missile” and noted that while the weapon being tested was conventional, it could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Bloomberg and The Washington Post