Trans-Pacific View

US Withdrawal From INF Treaty: Impact on China

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

US Withdrawal From INF Treaty: Impact on China

Insights from Mariusz Rukat.

US Withdrawal From INF Treaty: Impact on China
Credit: Youtube Screen Shot

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Mariusz Rukat Lieutenant-Colonel of the Polish Army reserve and a former analyst at the Ministry of National Defense as well as deputy defense attaché at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Beijing (2008-2012)   is the 162nd  in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the importance of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in U.S.-Russia relations.  

After several years of negotiations, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. Under the Treaty, the two parties agreed that a whole important class of nuclear weapons would be removed from Europe, and only tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) or short-range missiles – mostly deployed on the territory of Germany – would remain. The INF Treaty for years served to mitigate fears of both parties in relation to possibility of military escalation, operational miscalculation, and helping to shift the logic of MAD [mutually assured destruction] to the higher “more sensitive” political level.

During all these years, west European strategists and policymakers worried that in crisis, the U.S. would not be willing to defend them with nuclear weapons, and at other times, they feared that Washington would be too quick to do so. Europeans still preferred maximum reliance on nuclear (strategic) deterrence to prevent not only conventional or limited war/conflict, but any [war] at all.

In the INF Treaty the Reagan administration didn’t give any substantial concessions on arms control, including SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative] and intermediate-range nuclear forces. The Treaty concluded in a one-sided demand for Soviet concessions to give up hundreds of missiles that it directed toward western Europe. The U.S. gave up only the deployment of a new and additional nuclear force (the Pershing II), and ground launched cruise missiles. It also did not require limits on Europe-based Western forces – U.S. “forward based systems” and British and French strategic forces.

Analyze the rationale behind Washington D.C.’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty vis-à-vis Moscow and Beijing.

Putin’s Russia has half the military capabilities of the former USSR. Looking at it in a strategic context  ̶  having the collision trajectory of Moscow with the West, and with NATO at its doorstep  ̶  today’s Russia must compensate for weakness of its conventional force, and the only remaining “power solution” is to put heavier reliance on nuclear capabilities.

What concerns Washington most is a Russian cruise missile designated SSC-8 associated with the Russian designation 9M729. The INF Treaty bans U.S. or Russian ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. The SSC-8 has a range of 2,000 km, and is likely capable of being armed with conventional or nuclear warheads. Russia has also developed a shorter range version  ̶   the 9M728 (SSC-7) cruise missile that is a part of the Russian Iskander-M tactical missile system. The Iksander-M was reportedly deployed in Kaliningrad’s exclusive zone at the north border of Poland for a short period of time. The SSC-8 and SSC-7 both use ballistic and cruise systems and with a slight adjustment of flight trajectory might strike targets in most of Europe.

However, Washington’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty may have wider intentions. For many years China  ̶  not limited by the INF Treaty – has made striking military progress and developed and deployed a numerous arsenal of high-end cruise missiles, both land attack and anti-ship (ASBM), capable to carry conventional or nuclear warheads. Chinese military doctrines emphasize a supreme scenario that involves Taiwan-based targets and the prevention of U.S. intervention. For this reason Beijing strategists make extensive studies to determine how best to penetrate missile defense systems and deter carrier groups approaching the battlefield should the conflict develop in proximity of the east coast of China. Therefore, cruise missiles stand for a vital part of China’s A2/AD [anti-access area denial] concept and present a serious threat to any force that might engage with the PLA in battle.

What is the impact of U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty on China?  

Intermediate-range missile systems and cruise missiles would considerably enrich U.S. capabilities in a potential clash over Taiwan or other contentious strategic issue. As the PLA has a variety of cruise missiles that can be launched from land, air, sea, and sub-surface platforms, returning to intermediate-range systems would equip American forces with the capability to strike targets that are highly difficult to penetrate for conventional weapons at present. Nevertheless, any additional U.S. conventional military superiority gives China considerable incentive to increase reliance on an escalatory and possibly deterrence strategy.

Following Washington’s decision on the INF, we may expect an even more muscular stand from China concerning articulation and protection of the vital interests of Beijing. Meanwhile, we will see vectoral enhancement of political relations with states all over the world, particularly those that are economically and politically affiliated to China, with possible shows of economic might and deeper engagement on the field of security. All this will serve as a catalyst of economic allegiance and a probe of America’s security creed, especially in the region of the Pacific and Asia. Nevertheless, joining the arms race in Asia may lead China into a trap of “competitive strategy.”

How might Moscow react to Washington’s decision and what are implications for Poland?  

Washington and Moscow walking away from the INF Treaty will legitimate deployment of intermediate missiles in Europe – at the Russian and the European side. Within the range of 500 – 2,000 km, Poland could stand for a missile launchpad and the first rank target, at the same time.

Washington’s decision will ignite wide policy polemics in the Alliance, protracted debate on relations with Russia, the prospect of stronger nuclear deterrence, and if miscalculated, even war. No matter what weapons (conventional or nuclear) the discussion will contain, it will have strategic significance for Poland. We must be aware that for the first time since the end of the Cold War  ̶  with the prospect of all the military might of “Fort Trump” on the Polish soil  ̶  higher level of military power could mean less security.

What are foreign and security policy consequences for U.S. nuclear deterrence in the absence of the INF treaty?  

In harmony with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of the 1960s, SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] and START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty], the INF has had a codifying effect on the two superpowers’ strategic relations. The INF Treaty bound Russia, but also offered a hedge against worst-case scenarios, like a redeployment of U.S. missiles in Europe. Today, Moscow has judged that it could compete for parity with the U.S. in conventional missiles, and for superiority in non-strategic nuclear weapons. Today there is a need to deter Russia.

Washington’s leaving the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] and INF Treaty creates a formal agreement to vertical proliferation of WMD and gives higher status to the concept of power in international politics. Nevertheless, leaving the INF Treaty would allow the U.S. to balance the military technology gap with these assets, which has grown since 1980, especially between U.S. and China.

Donald Trump clearly highlights superiority of the U.S. in ranks of global politics — not, as shortly after World War II, U.S. “preponderance of power” but the instrumental subjective nature of “power in motion.”  The U.S. decision may allow for better consumption of the expected 2 percent of defense expenses requested from NATO members. However, debate on U.S. guarantees to defend Europe and President Trump’s contractual approach to the issue of commitments to security causes some unrest among allies, friends, and partners. If the U.S. wants to keep its global alliances strong and cohesive, it will be necessary for Washington to look at partners and friends with recognition of interests that have changed much since the “liberal order” took shape.