The Indo-Pacific was not a factor when the two superpowers involved in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty negotiated the treaty. But the demise the U.S.-Russia pact on August 1 could have serious consequences in the region, ranging from an arms race to innovative disarmament treaties. U.S. national security planners have new options to consider in Indo-Pacific, as well as new challenges that will require careful consideration.
These were the issues that brought together treaty allies, U.S. government officials, national security experts and academics on July 23 and 24 for a workshop by the Center for Global Security Research. They convened to understand the security implications for the Indo-Pacific of different courses of action in a post-INF Treaty world.
After years of allegations that Russia was violating the treaty, the U.S. formally withdrew on August 1, 2019. The INF Treaty was a landmark arms control agreement negotiated between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that indefinitely prohibited the possessing, testing or deployment of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with range capabilities between 500 and 5,000 kilometers. The U.S. decision to withdrawal from the treaty has been divisive, not only for the parties involved — the U.S. and Russia — but also for U.S. partners and allies, including those in the Indo-Pacific region.
One argument advocating for U.S. withdrawal centered on China’s arsenal of INF-range ground-based missiles capable of preventing the U.S. military from operating in the Indo-Pacific. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force “has at least 1,330 and potentially more than 1,895 ballistic and cruise missiles, which includes 1,000–1,200 short-range ballistic missiles, 75–100 medium-range ballistic missiles, 5–20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, 50–75 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 200–500 ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles.” Approximately 90 percent of China’s ballistic and cruise missile inventory falls within the ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty.
These scores of missiles can hold at risk U.S. bases in Japan, as well as Anderson Air Force base in Guam. U.S. officials — notably the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris — have argued that the INF treaty constrained the U.S. because China is not party to it, and it is necessary for the U.S. to deploy conventional ground-based, intermediate-range missile systems (GBIRs) to counter China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. However, there are two significant political challenges associated with deploying GBIRs that the U.S. will have to address.
One challenge is the potential escalation of aggression. Authoritative Chinese media have repeatedly stated that the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty could spur a new arms race. Tong Zhao, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, stated, “It is highly likely that China would try to counter new U.S. capabilities by doubling down on its own investments in similar technologies and other countermeasures. A broader arms competition that spills over into additional technological domains other than traditional ballistic and cruise missiles seems hard to avoid.” One proposed solution is to negotiate an arms control treaty that includes China. Given China’s current nuclear force modernization and rising global status, this theory has merit. But it is highly unlikely that China would join a treaty similar to the INF, which would constrain the majority of their arsenal. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi explicitly stated, “We are opposed to the multilateralization of the INF.” However, there is always a possibility China might join a different type of treaty.
Another political challenge in a post-INF Treaty world is the placement of U.S. ground-based, intermediate range missiles in the Indo-Pacific. Apart from Guam, which is a U.S. territory, the most likely candidates are Japan and South Korea. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already announced that Australia will not host U.S. GBIRs. Each of these countries presents different receptivity, challenges and costs associated with hosting U.S. missiles. Due to the immense risk in a conflict scenario, any ally agreeing to host these systems may also insist on having a say in their operational control and use. Additionally, each country has its own domestic politics and national security concerns to consider. U.S. planners will need to engage in considerable consultation and coordination with partners and allies before moving forward.
Before producing new ground-based intermediate range systems, the U.S. should consider all of the nuances and risks associated with their deployment. The end of the INF treaty creates new challenges that the U.S. will have to address thoughtfully. A replay of an INF-style treaty may not be an option. Perhaps this new environment will require a new form of arms control agreement.