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A Russian-American Missile Treaty Dies. That May Be Bad News For China

Military vehicles carrying cruise missiles in a parade on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in September 2015.

One of the most important arms control treaties of the Cold War -- signed by Washington and Moscow 32 years ago -- has all but died. For disarmament advocates, that’s bad news.

It could also be bad news for a nuclear-armed country that was never bound by the pact: China.

The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which the United States officially withdrew from on August 2, has stoked fears of a new arms race between the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

The treaty collapsed amid U.S. accusations that Russia developed, and later deployed, a missile system in violation of the deal. Moscow both denied the allegation and asserted that U.S. missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe violated the treaty.

No Restrictions

Beijing, which currently has the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, was never a party to the 1987 agreement. And while U.S. President Donald Trump’s primary argument for withdrawing was Russia’s alleged violations, administration officials have also pointed to the lack of restrictions on China’s missile programs.

Analysts say that the United States may now seek to prioritize deployment of conventional medium-range missiles near China rather than Russia.

The United States “has made it very clear” it is concerned its military position in the Asia Pacific region has been weakening with respect to China, said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “And it views the ability to place missiles in the region as a way to halt that trend.”

The medium-range missiles eliminated by the treaty were seen as acutely destabilizing because of their short flight times. A missile with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers could reach its target -- Brussels, say, or Smolensk -- in just minutes, giving military and political leaders no time to react, and lead to hair-trigger orders.

Should the United States place missiles in Asia, Russia could follow suit east of the Ural Mountains, Samuel Charap, a fellow at the Rand Corporation, a California-based research organization funded in large part by the U.S. government, said in testimony submitted to a congressional committee in April.

That would be a headache for China, which has cordial relations with Moscow. Beijing has a series of medium-range missiles, mainly ballistic, that would fall under the treaty’s limitations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in March he would not order the placement of missiles in any particular region until the United States did so.

The Soviet Union deployed missiles in regions east of the Urals, but had to destroy them as part of the INF Treaty.

Charap said that was “a major diplomatic coup” for China, since it removed a major threat.

It wasn’t only Washington that pointed to China’s absence in the INF as an argument for the treaty’s obsolescence. Moscow did as well.

Russia began to contemplate withdrawing from the INF Treaty last decade, arguing that the treaty restricts it from possessing the type of weapons that neighbors like China are deploying, according to the Arms Control Association.

Deep Strikes

Beijing has called on Washington to stick to the agreement, despite U.S. claims of Russian violations, to prevent a missile buildup in Asia.

“Given the relatively modest size of Beijing’s arsenal, the capability of any potential adversary to strike launch sites or nodes deep within Chinese territory would be an unwelcome development,” Charap said.

The United States has not said whether it would seek to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the wake of the treaty’s demise.

Some members of Congress have explicitly demanded deploying such missiles to Europe, and the current-year legislation authorizing U.S. defense policy and spending calls for developing new weapons to counter Russia.

However, it’s not even clear which countries in Europe would agree to hosting them.

And in Asia, U.S. allies have not been “rushing forward” to host any potential missiles, Reif noted.

Thomas Karako, director of the missile-defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States will test ground-based missiles later this year. But he also said it could take ones currently deployed at sea and put them on a truck to create a mobile land-based weapon.

“Everybody understands the utility of mobile missiles -- you can hide and distribute them. We may get back into that game,” Karako told RFE/RL.

Russia has used truck-based mobile systems for its intercontinental ballistic missiles for years.

Poland -- which is expected to host part of a U.S. missile-defense system beginning next year -- would likely be in favor of hosting ground-based missiles to counter a Russia threat, said Marcin Gaweda, president of the Warsaw Institute Foundation, a Polish think tank.

“If the Pentagon makes such a proposition, it is going to be beneficial for both the United States and Poland,” he told RFE/RL.

Romania already hosts a U.S. missile-defense system, and Moscow has asserted that the technology used in that, and the proposed Polish system, known as Aegis BMD, or Aegis Ashore, violated aspects of the INF Treaty.

Not all agree with the assessment that deploying new U.S. missiles to Eastern Europe would be wholly beneficial.

If Washington places ground-based missiles in Europe, it could provoke Russia and lead to a new arms race, said Jon Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the White House National Security Council.

“Deploying cruise missiles or ballistic missiles in European territory does not make America and NATO safer,” he said.

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“All it does is increase the risk that an escalation can spiral out of control quickly. And that is why you are seeing European allies show extreme reticence in suggesting that they might be willing to accept them,” he said.

In a statement published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which advocates for arms control and nonproliferation agreements, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn said the issue of China’s missile system was no justification for the end of the treaty.

“The strategic rationale for the Treaty is as sound today as it was when it was signed in 1987,” they wrote. “Nor is it required to deal with the threat of China’s INF-range systems.”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.