Death of nuclear treaty with Russia could start arms race with China

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Dec. 8, 1987, easily could mark the day the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States finally ended. On that day, both nations signed the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, a game-changer agreement that scrapped all ground-based missiles — cruise and ballistic — with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. The treaty created a strict inspection regime: both sides monitoring each other’s compliance, or, as President Ronald Reagan now famously declared during the signing ceremony, “Trust but verify,” allowing on-site inspection of each nation’s missile forces.

But if there is any constant in the great game of international politics it is that nothing — even historic treaties of such importance — lasts forever.

{mosads}So, it seems fitting that on Oct. 20, 2018, with President Donald Trump announcing that Washington would “terminate” the INF Treaty, the president inadvertently might have marked the beginning of a new, 21st century Cold War. This time, the superpower standoff involves not Russia but China, which never was party to the treaty’s limitations.

None of this should come as a surprise. While Russia clearly has been violating the agreement for years, testing and modernizing its missile forces in the wake of tensions with the European Union and NATO nations over the Ukraine crisis, there always was a possibility that Washington and Moscow could come to terms with a a new version of the agreement. But Trump’s reasoning for killing the treaty has everything to do with China’s rising military might. China is building a new generation of ground-based missiles squarely aimed at U.S. and allied bases and naval vessels in the Asia-Pacific that Washington has no ability to match, because of the treaty.

Indeed, China’s growing missile forces have been worrisome for U.S. military strategists for nearly a decade. Perhaps the greatest example is one specific weapon, the DF-21D missile, what many weapons experts call the “carrier-killer.” The missile, in development since the mid-1990s, is a response to China’s being unable to hold at risk U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups deployed near its coastline during the Taiwan Crisis of 1995-1996. Fired from land from a specialized truck, the missile, in theory, can strike an ocean-going naval vessel from up to 1,000 miles away, descending on its target at speeds up to Mach 10. Some experts consider the weapon almost revolutionary, as China can build such missiles cheaply, leading some to theorize that U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are as obsolete as a World War II-era battleship.

From here it gets worse. China has improved upon the DF-21D and developed an even more sophisticated “carrier-killer,” the DF-26. This missile, also fired from land, can strike a naval vessels at sea as far away as 2,500 miles. The weapon can be used to strike land-based targets as well, and perhaps worst of all, can be armed with a nuclear warhead. Military analysts have given this missile its own fear-inspiring nickname — “Guam-killer” — because it would have the range to attack U.S. air and naval forces there.

While the death of the INF Treaty signals that America now can match Russian, and more specially, Chinese missile advances, it also could spark a potentially deadly arms race in the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific region. With Washington free to develop similar ground-based missiles as China has deployed, Beijing could seek to develop even more advanced systems with longer ranges and capabilities. Additionally, both sides could seek to deploy greater amounts of missile defense platforms to offset each other’s growing offensive capabilities.

The costs for all of this, on both sides, easily could add billions of dollars to Chinese and American defense budgets, while further destabilizing a bilateral relationship that has deteriorated over the past two years.

However, we should not reconcile ourselves to such a fate just yet. There is still a possibility that President Trump’s move to kill the INF Treaty could be a ploy to try to renegotiate the deal on his terms. The agreement spells out that either party must give six-months’ notice that it is terminating the accord, giving Washington time to work with Moscow and Beijing to perhaps forge a treaty that incorporates all three nations.

Although China would be hard-pressed to give up its sizable missile advantage, it should be concerned that taking on America in an arms race bankrupted the Soviet Union, and that this 21st century “missile gap” would be closed within time.

To use President Trump’s catchphrase, “We’ll see what happens.”

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.

Tags Donald Trump Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty International relations Missile defense US-China relations US-Russia relations

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