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Exiting the Russia nuclear treaty impacts military strategy in Asia

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President Trump recently announced that the United States will soon exit the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. This will open significant options for the United States to adjust its military posture in the Asia Pacific. While we do not take a position on whether the United States should ultimately exit from the treaty, we do believe that it is reasonable to reassess whether it continues to be in our interests to abide by its restrictions when the other party does not and while the global distribution of military power grows increasingly multipolar.

For more than a decade, China has made significant investments in conventional ground based intermediate range missiles, primarily because Beijing believes that is surest way to cripple the ability of the United States to project power into East Asia. As Harry Harris, the former head of the Pacific Command and current ambassador to South Korea, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, more than 90 percent of the ground based missiles China has would violate the treaty.

{mosads}As Beijing well knows, geography has forced the United States to rely solely on expensive air and sea platforms that are limited in the number of munitions they can carry to project power into East Asia. Leaving the treaty would allow the United States to project power more efficiently. A conventionally armed intermediate range cruise or ballistic missile battalion could be rapidly moved by air or sea to any location a wheeled vehicle can access, opening up endless possibilities across the region and even in Alaska. It would also free our high demand pilots and sailors to prioritize other missions better suited to air and naval power.

Additionally, these systems would complicate Chinese military planning and enhance deterrence by presenting an offensive capability that can be rapidly deployed across East Asia. The Chinese military would be forced to constantly worry about potential deployment of these systems. Instead of American strike capabilities being relegated to increasingly vulnerable air and naval platforms and well known bases, strikes could originate from unpredictable locations on unsinkable islands. This is exactly the sort of competitive strategy United States planners would be eager to exploit.

Finally, a ground launched cruise missiles could be used to hold both land and sea targets at risk. An anti-ship cruise missile battalion deployed in a conflict alongside the Japanese in the Ryukyu Islands or in a location like Palawan in the southern Philippines would augment air and sea forces focused on holding the critical maritime geography of China at risk.

Yet, there are also some challenges in Asia that the United States will need to consider should it withdraw from the treaty. The first would be to ensure that the deployment of conventional ground based intermediate range missiles does not introduce too much instability in the strategic military balance, as some in China may see the deployment of such capabilities as a threat to its nuclear deterrent. However, the reality is that the United States already has cruise missiles at this range deployed for use from air and naval platforms, so adding these missiles will not change what targets the United States can strike, only how it can strike them.

Another question about these defense capabilities would be where the United States military could deploy them from. While Guam is an obvious answer for launching ballistic missiles, both because it is an American territory and because of its geographic location, the territories of American allies and partners may present the most likely opportunities for United States planners to consider for deploying cruise missiles.

Yet, those American allies and partners may be reluctant to allow their permanent basing on their territory for fear of upsetting Beijing and becoming a target in a conflict. The United States can address these hurdles by making these missiles mobile and rapidly deployable, which would mean that they would not need to be permanently based in a territory of an ally or partner and could be deployed during a crisis.

Ultimately, the decision to withdraw from the treaty will likely be based on the Trump administration assessment of how the benefits of these new options in Asia balance against the problems it may cause with Russia and within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. While the United States should not be compelled to simply mirror the strategy of Beijing, it is clear that exiting the treaty will present new opportunities and challenges for the United States to enhance its ability to compete with a rising China.

Abraham Denmark is director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, where he is also a senior fellow at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. He served as deputy assistant secretary for East Asia at the United States Department of Defense.

Eric Sayers is a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He worked as a consultant for the United States Pacific Command and as a staff member at the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he managed the Asia Pacific policy portfolio for Chairman John McCain.

Tags America China Defense Donald Trump Government John McCain Military

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