Strategic Imbalance

U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty will bring multiple negative effects

The U.S. officially abandoned the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on August 2. Although the Donald Trump administration announced the withdrawal last October, the substantial implications are becoming visible now that the announcement has gone into effect. The unilateral withdrawal from the treaty will have significant effects on international strategic stability and cause wide-ranging harm to U.S.-Russia ties, regional security and global nuclear stability.

Growing Divergences

The INF Treaty, signed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in December 1987, banned the two signatory countries from possessing, producing or conducting test flights of ground-launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km.

The treaty was signed at the height of U.S.-Russia arms control and disarmament, once key to easing the arm race. After the Cold War, the treaty continued to be in force and significantly contributed to nuclear disarmament, easing global tensions and balancing the global nuclear strategy.

However, 30 years after the birth of the treaty, divergences between the U.S. and Russia in implementing it gradually increased.

The U.S. and Russia started to hold different attitudes toward the function of the INF Treaty as their geostrategic priorities changed. During the Cold War, the INF Treaty served as a tool mainly to reduce nuclear competition in Europe. After the Cold War, the U.S. increased its military activities in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, while Russia still mainly focused on its neighboring areas.

To maintain its hegemony, the U.S. repeatedly attempted to revise or ditch the treaty, as it limited the U.S. ability to deploy nuclear force in Asia-Pacific and other areas. For Russia, this treaty contributed to checking the increasing gap with the U.S. in strategic force.

The INF, however, failed to effectively restrict the nuclear and missile development of the U.S. and Russia. This treaty banned all land-based missiles, but did not apply to air- or sea-based ones. Therefore, development of nuclear force by the U.S. and Russia was not fully limited. Their competition continued in some aspects.

As time passed, such loopholes became more evident and the effectiveness of the INF Treaty declined. Based on their respective interests, the U.S. and Russia usually held different positions on the value of the treaty.

Behind the Withdrawal

Since Trump came to power in 2017, the U.S. Government has acted unilaterally and withdrawn from multiple international treaties, which in his view were not in the interest of his country, regardless of the harm to its reputation and international image. The INF Treaty was not an exception, although it was valuable for the global strategic balance. There are three strategic considerations behind Trump’s move on the treaty.

First, the U.S. hoped to free itself from the treaty in order to develop a series of short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. To expand its nuclear power, the U.S. attempted to develop and own missiles with various ranges, which evidently ran counter to the INF Treaty. This is not the first time that the U.S. ditched treaties to expand its military force. As early as 2002, the U.S. abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty signed with the Soviet Union, followed by the accelerated development and deployment of the missile defense system.

Withdrawal could not save the U.S. from international condemnation of treaty violations. Such a practice indicated that the U.S. treats international treaties as tools to achieve its self-interest and shows its lack of responsibility as a big power.

Second, Trump placed huge emphasis on nuclear power in order to enhance the U.S. military strength. Compared with his predecessor Barack Obama’s efforts to shape a world without nuclear force, the Trump administration not only increased national defense expenditure, but also emphasized the role of nuclear weapons. In the Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018, the U.S. indicated it intended to diversify its arsenal, introduce two new types of nuclear weapons and enhance its nuclear deterrence. This trajectory means that any treaties restricting the nuclear force development of the U.S. will be regarded as stumbling blocks to be moved away, and the INF Treaty is not an exception.

Third, the U.S. is confident about its own nuclear force and believes Russia’s counterbalance would be limited. During the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union realized the limitations of their own nuclear force and dreaded the other’s, which provided the basis for progress in arms control and disarmament. But the landscape has changed now. The U.S. has gained an upper hand in nuclear force over Russia, and the INF Treaty was more of a constraint to the U.S. than Russia. If the U.S., or even both countries return to an arms race, it would be beneficial to U.S. interests.

A Bitter Pill

Now that the U.S. has formally withdrawn from the INF Treaty, its impact on international strategic stability cannot be ignored.

The already strained U.S.-Russia ties will become worse. After the Crimean crisis of 2014, these relations hit a low point and didn’t improve after Trump came to power as he was trapped in the so-called Russia-gate scandal.

After the Cold War, the national strength of Russia substantially weakened. Due to a weak economy, Russia has put much emphasis on its military power, especially nuclear strength. Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 4 officially suspended Russia’s participation in the INF Treaty after the U.S. ditched the deal. He warned that “if Russia obtains reliable information that the U.S. has finished developing these systems and started to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles.”

This tit-for-tat action will inevitably lead to the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. And the nuclear imbalance between the two countries will continue to grow.

Moreover, the withdrawal will impact regional security as security competition will intensify in the long run. After tearing up the INF Treaty, the U.S. will definitely enhance its military deployment in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. Russia is set to react with counterbalancing measures, which will bring uncertainties to the security of European countries.

If the U.S. is to deploy new missiles in Asia, this would aggravate risks of strategic rivalry between China and the U.S. and put U.S. allies in Asia under greater pressure, resulting in a more complicated regional situation.

Recently, the U.S. repeatedly sent messages indicating future deployment of new missiles in Asia. The Chinese Government has clearly expressed its firm opposition.

Sino-U.S. ties will deteriorate further if the U.S. strengthens counterbalancing against China in military areas, as bilateral ties have already hit a low due to trade friction.

This will pose a grave challenge to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

Lastly, the U.S. withdrawal would delay the process of global nuclear weapons control and disarmament. The disarmament drive hinges upon the self-restraint of the big powers and their honoring commitments. The unilateral attitude of the U.S. has set a bad example, which will enhance military competition and create more risks for future global security.

China’s Opposition

Withdrawing from the INF Treaty is another negative move of the U.S. that ignores its international commitment and pursues unilateralism. Its real intention is to make the treaty no longer binding on itself so that it can unilaterally seek military and strategic edge. After withdrawing from the treaty, if the U.S. resumes the research, development and deployment of intermediate-range missiles, it will severely undermine global strategic balance and stability, intensify tensions and distrust, disrupt the current process of international nuclear disarmament and multilateral arms control, and threaten peace and security of the relevant regions.

—Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on August 3

The author is a professor at China Foreign Affairs University