The US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty continues to send shockwaves through the foreign policy community. The INF treaty, which eliminated an entire class of land-based nuclear weapons is often heralded as one of the most stabilizing arms controls agreements hammered out between the United States and The Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In his announcement, President Trump specifically cited China as a driving factor behind the US decision to withdraw, a sentiment that has gained extensive traction in Washington. Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security recently told Foreign Policy that “The military balance in the Pacific is going in the wrong direction” and that the restrictions of the INF treaty were a major contributing factor. Abraham Denmark of the Woodrow Wilson Center wrote on Twitter that withdrawing from INF “could free us to field more effective systems to counter Chinese capabilities” in the region.
On the surface, this argument has merit. Unlike the United States and Russia, China is not bound by the INF treaty and has been free to develop as many ground-based missiles in the INF prohibited range of 500 km – 5,500 km as it desires. According to Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of US Pacific Command, China has the “largest and most diverse missile force in the world” — and 95 percent of its missiles “would violate the INF [treaty] if China was a signatory.”
But the numbers and nature of China’s missile force alone does not justify tearing up the INF treaty to provide an effective counterbalance to it. Upon digging deeper, the China angle to INF withdrawal fails to hold up to scrutiny. Here’s why:
INF COMPLIANT OPTIONS
The argument that the INF treaty is an obstacle to securing American interests in Asia assumes that short and intermediate ground-launched missiles are the only way to hold China’s assets in the region at risk. This is not the case. The INF treaty does not apply to missiles fired from the air and sea, a loophole that the United States is well aware of. US ships, submarines, and aircraft are capable of launching large numbers of nuclear and conventional INF range weapons from the sea and air. Just last year, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva told the US Congress that, “there are no military requirements we cannot currently satisfy due to our compliance with the INF Treaty. While there is a military requirement to prosecute targets at ranges covered by the INF Treaty, those fires do not have to be ground-based.”
Unlike ground-based missiles, sea and air based platforms have the added bonus of being mobile, which makes them far more difficult for a potential adversary to target. The United States can also relocate the assets with ease, whereas ground-based missiles are stationary (and therefore vulnerable) unless deployed on mobile launch vehicles, which the United States does not currently possess.
THE DISTANCE PROBLEM
Besides the fact that there is no capability gap in the Pacific for INF class weapons to fill, a major question that remains unanswered is, if the United States builds them, where will they go? Chinese targets would be far out of reach of intermediate-range missiles based in the continental United States, and virtually none of our allies in the Pacific would be willing to host them. South Korea would be reluctant to upset the peace process with the North, which the deployment of short and intermediate range missiles to the peninsula would do, Japan has already called the prospect of US withdrawal from the INF treaty “undesirable,” and stationing US missiles in Taiwan is an explicit red line for Beijing, which if crossed, will trigger an invasion.
This makes Guam the only US territory in the Pacific that fits the bill for INF weaponry. But Guam is still 4,000 km away from the Chinese mainland, and already serves as a base for America’s Continuous Bomber Presence mission, which involves a permanent rotation of B-52, B-1 and B-2 long-range strategic bombers. According to the US Air Force, “these bombers provide a significant rapid global strike capability that enables our readiness and US commitment to deterrence, offers assurance to our allies, and strengthens regional security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”
Some analysts have suggested storing INF class missiles in Guam, for the purpose of rapidly deploying them to regional allies, such as Japan and Korea in the event of a crisis. However, the act of deploying the weapons would be an escalatory measure in and of itself, and US allies in the region would be taking an enormous risk by accepting them. Forward deploying the missiles in a crisis would also be time-consuming, whereas sea and air-based assets can be repositioned in the theatre quickly, and in the case of submarines, discreetly.
There are reasons for withdrawing from the INF treaty that make sense. Trump’s America First policy is diametrically opposed to international agreements that place restrictions on American sovereignty. From that perspective, INF a very bad deal indeed. Trump should have told the world: “we’re withdrawing from the INF treaty because I don’t like it.” At least that would have been honest. Pretending that there’s a China angle is not.
Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies where he specializes in nuclear weapons policy.