“Where do we go after the INF Treaty?” Possible Options

By Ambassador Nobuyasu Abe

The US formally withdrew from the INF Treaty on August 2, 2019, and the bilateral treaty with Russia (as successor to the Soviet Union) came to its end after nearly 32 years in force. Soon after, the US tested ground-based intermediate range missiles that were previously banned under the treaty. The US has shown its willingness to deploy these kinds of missiles in the Pacific region while NATO is carefully considering the matter stating that it had “no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear[1] missiles in Europe.”

Russia responded by suspending the application of the treaty while expressing readiness to abstain from deploying INF-class missiles if the US does the same. This proposal sounds attractive but the US does not seem to be impressed by the idea as it does not address the two major causes why it decided to withdraw from the treaty. First, the US considered Russia to be in violation of the treaty by testing and deploying treaty-non-compliant Iskander K cruise missiles (9M729). This dispute would have to be settled for the US to return to the INF Treaty. Second, the Russian proposal does not address the increasing capability of the Chinese missile forces, which includes INF-class missiles and may be the real reason for the US withdrawal.

Will the US and Russia definitively enter an arms buildup competition in the sphere formerly banned by the INF? Will they agree to freeze the deployment of the INF-class missiles? Is there a chance for a new arms control treaty that includes China? What are the impacts on Japan and other countries?

Scenario One: acceleration of arms competition followed by a possible new arms control agreement.

Under the current circumstances, it is most likely that the US will proceed with the development of INF-class missiles and deployment in Asia and possibly in Europe. In Asia, where China is increasing its missile capability with development of advanced ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles and North Korea is building its short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles with additional possibility of developing new types of depressed trajectory missiles, Japan and South Korea may feel more secure if the US deploys INF-class missiles in the region to counter those threats.

China, Russia and North Korea will try to discourage such deployment by mobilizing diplomatic pressure on the prospective receiving countries. The experience of the THAAD missile deployment in South Korea indicates the country is susceptible to political and economic pressure from China. Nevertheless, given the security benefits of INF-class missile deployment and the willingness to maintain its alliance with the US, South Korea will probably feel obliged to accept the deployment.

Japan may be less vulnerable to Chinese pressure but certain domestic resistance may be likely. The deployment of the Aegis-ashore missile-defense system faced resistance from local community in Akita Prefecture. In the case of Japan, if the missiles carry nuclear warheads, it would cause a major political dispute in the country as it would contradict the Three Non-nuclear Principles pronounced by the successive governments since the time of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1960s, that commit Japan not to manufacture, not to possess and not to introduce nuclear weapons into Japan. So far, the US seems to plan to equip INF-category missiles with only conventional warheads, so the deployment issue will not invoke a nuclear debate in Japan. The opposition, however, may demand written assurance that the US will not equip the missiles with nuclear warheads. This may bring back the old debate in Japan when the opposition demanded assurance that US forces were not bringing nuclear warheads into Japan, to which the government responded by saying that the government believed the US government was well aware of the Three Non-nuclear Principles of Japan, that it expects the US to respect them and that the government does not need to confirm it with the US government. The US in the meantime maintains its principle that it does not confirm or deny the whereabouts of nuclear warheads. In South Korea, where the Japanese kind of nuclear allergy does not exist, deployment of missiles with nuclear warheads may not generate such a serious debate. There is even a small but strong minority voice that favors redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea in the face of nuclear-armed North Korea.

Reactions in Asia may be influenced by the development in Europe. While NATO has not yet clarified its position on the deployment of American INF-class missiles in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron suggests discussing options with Russia on how to manage the overall security situation in Europe. If an agreement is reached, for example, to exclude or limit the number of deployable INF-class missiles in Europe between NATO and Russia, the argument may start that a similar deal may be made for Asia. But, since such an agreement is not likely to include China, its straightforward application to Asia does not seem likely. For the inclusion of China, a different format will have to be invented.

Scenario Two: balancing with China

As the US argues, it is desirable to include the fast-rising China in any future arms control framework. But, this is definitely easier said than done. China is estimated to have only around 290 nuclear warheads as of 2018 whereas the US has around 6,200 warheads of which 1,550 are deployed. As China argues, it is still out of the range of the US-Russia balancing. China has an estimated 70-80 ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach the US mainland and less than 400 ballistic missiles with shorter ranges. For the US, only long-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads are strategic threats whereas the INF-class missiles that may be deployed in the Pacific with ranges reaching the Chinese heartland would become strategic threats to China. For the relatively small number of ballistic missiles that can reach the US mainland, the US homeland defense missile defense system diminishes the threat to a considerable degree, even though the current US capability is not enough to reliably intercept all of the Chinese missiles if they were fired at once. In that sense the US and China are already mutually vulnerable. For the US, the new advanced Chinese missiles with middle and short ranges become an anti-access area denial weapons to keep the US forward-deployed forces out of the range.

First steps may be to work on confidence-building measures that can reduce the risk of unintended escalation to the stage of nuclear confrontation. One idea is to come up with a certain arrangement to identify which ballistic missiles are nuclear-armed and which are not, so that when non-nuclear ballistic missiles are fired, the targeted side is not tempted to fire back quickly with nuclear missiles. China, which for defensive reasons has traditionally maintained a policy of not disclosing the locations of nuclear forces, may have difficulty accepting this confidence building measure. There is also a proposal to prohibit nuclear armed cruise missiles wherever they are based.

Scenario Three: agree on number, payload and geography of deployable INF-class missiles with an accommodation on missile launchers.

Dmitry Stefanovich, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, suggested to focus on INF-capable launchers and self-restraint in deployment numbers, payload and geography. This may be a practical compromise solution to the US-Russia dispute over the Russian violation, and to the Russian counter-accusation that the US missile defense launchers in Europe can serve as INF-class missile launchers. Whether to include Iskander-K cruise missiles or not may still remain as a point of contention.

One way to get around the current dispute may be to modify the range restrictions of in a future INF Treaty to ban ground-launched missiles of 3,000 to 5,500 km range. That would have the benefit of excluding the 9M729, which is around 2,500 km in range, and would also placate those who favor deploying short- and medium-range missiles in Asia to balance China. It would still be a problematic proposal for China, but in the bilateral U.S.-Russia context, this might have some value.

Such ideas may be considered in the kind of dialogue that President Macron suggests having with Russia on a “new security architecture.” This idea appears to focus on the European situation but can also be applied to the Asian context.

Scenario Four: expand the negotiations to include India and Pakistan as well.

Security concerns are interlinked. After the end of the Cold War, Russia became more concerned about the potential threats from China and felt constrained by the INF Treaty. Russians refuse to acknowledge that China is also their security concern. China, for its part, does not acknowledge India as its security concern. Thus, German scholar Harald Müller suggested to include India and Pakistan as well in any negotiation of a future ballistic missile control regime. Certainly, the security is interlinked but the inclusion of India and Pakistan on top of China is bound to make the initiation and negotiation of an agreement highly unwieldy. One way to overcome such difficulty may be to make a possible US-Russia-China trilateral agreement of a relatively short duration and insert in it a safeguard clause that in case a third country expands its nuclear/ballistic missile arsenal significantly, China may request a consultation and retain a right ultimately to withdraw from the agreement.

Scenario Five: an alternative policy to strengthen missile defense and air- and sea-launched missiles.

For a country like Japan which has a self-imposed restriction not to possess purely offensive weapons, it is hard to build and deploy its own offensive missile systems. Thus, Japan is bound to strengthen its missile defense systems by upgrading existing SM-3 and Patriot missile defense systems, and anti-submarine and air defense capability. Before the US definitively withdrew from the INF Treaty, it was also argued that the US could strengthen its defense and still continue complying with the INF Treaty restrictions by strengthening air- and sea-launched missiles.

In considering future defense against North Korean and Chinese missile threats, Japan and the US will have to consider ways to deal with depressed orbit maneuverable ballistic/gliding missiles that cannot be dealt with by the current mid-course (high altitude) missile defense system or the terminal-phase (low altitude) missile defense system.

Concluding Observation: China holds the key.

Whether the post-INF Treaty missile control regime ends up in an unrestrained arms competition, or an agreed framework for mutual restraints, will greatly depend on whether China agrees to join such a framework. China has never joined any bilateral or plurilateral strategic arms-control agreement. It has joined a number of multilateral arms control agreements — NPT, CTBT (signing), Antarctic Treaty, Space Treaty, CWC, and BWC — but only passively. It has never taken an initiative for international arms control. With the rising status of China, it is gradually taking initiatives in international arenas such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s One Belt One Road Initiative. Whether China starts to take initiatives that can have universal appeal still needs to be seen. It would be better to have it coming sooner.

Nobuyasu Abe is a Senior Advisor with the Council on Strategic Risks. He was a former UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, a Commissioner of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and, most recently, a senior fellow at Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

[1] Emphasis added by the author. Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on August 2, 2019. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_168177.htm


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