U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on October 20 that the U.S. will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a Cold War-era arms control agreement, has provoked criticism all round. America’s European allies, Russia and even China have said that the U.S.’ action will roll back achievements on arms control and restart the Cold War arms race.
The INF treaty, signed in 1987 by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, required destruction of ground-based ballistic and cruise missile systems with ranges of between 500 km and 5,500 km. The U.S. thus removed its shorter-range, nuclear-capable Pershing ballistic missiles, based in Western Europe, while the U.S.S.R. agreed to scrap SS-20 and equivalent systems. Intermediate-range ballistic missiles are harder for anti-missile systems to track and shoot down as they spend much less time airborne. They also give less time to an adversary to react, increasing chances of an accidental war.
The U.S. has not taken this step in a rush. It has said that Russia’s violations of the treaty in 2013 impelled it to withdraw from the agreement. The real reason though seems to be China.
China has the widest range of ballistic missiles in its arsenal, most of them intermediate-range. The INF Treaty kept the U.S. and Russia from developing ballistic missiles of 500-5,500 km range, but it did not bring other powers under its ambit: China, and even India, have continued to develop ballistic missiles of this range, China’s DF-21 – a ballistic missile for anti-ship use – being even more advanced. Ballistic missiles fly above the atmosphere, and are therefore much harder to intercept unlike traditional anti-ship cruise missiles which are air-breathing. This missile has been dubbed a ‘carrier-killer’, and may deter the U.S. navy from sailing close to Chinese waters.
China’s large arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (estimated to be over 2,000 in number) poses a threat to Taiwan, Japan and U.S. military forces in the region.
The INF treaty, in its present form, does nothing to stop such a missile build-up and rolling it back is yet another sign that the U.S. is taking the Chinese challenge more seriously. The U.S. has so far imposed special tariffs on Chinese exports, restricted Chinese telecom companies from participating in the American market and come out with an initial version of a global infrastructure corridor to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But the step the U.S. has now taken is clearly outside the economic realm.
The U.S. is now free to develop such weapons which can potentially be sited on American military bases in the region. This poses a similar counter-threat to China, not just to its navy and shipping, but also to infrastructure and military facilities on the Chinese coast. As most of its economy is centred on its coast, China may now find itself at the receiving end of an asymmetrical threat that it was earlier posing to other powers in the region.
Amit Bhandari is Fellow, Energy and Environment Studies, Gateway House.
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