Why America Leaving the INF Treaty is China’s New Nightmare
“The United States has indicated on October 20, that it will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with President Donald Trump saying Saturday that Russia has been ‘violating it for many years,’ and ‘we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to.’ But despite pinning the blame on Moscow’s repeated violations of the treaty (Russia having allegedly begun test flights of a prohibited cruise missile as early as 2008), America’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty is not really about Russia—nor is it even about nuclear weapons. As with much else in its new era of strategic competition, America’s move is focused squarely on its contest with China in the Asia-Pacific region.
China has never been a signatory of the INF Treaty, which bans the development or deployment of both nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. This has allowed China to build up a vast arsenal of conventional anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weapons, such as the DF-21 ‘carrier killer’ anti-ship ballistic missile (range of 1,500 kilometers). All of these weapons are of a class that the United States is legally prevented from deploying. This has led to America becoming significantly ‘out sticked’ in the ongoing ‘ range war ‘ between military systems designed to safely control the increasingly unfriendly seas and skies of the Western Pacific. In the event of a high-end conflict, U.S. naval surface combatants would find themselves at a disadvantage, having to rely on older sea-launched standoff systems, like the Tomahawk land-attack missile, and vulnerable carrier-based airpower, to strike at deadly A2/AD weapons that can hide within the Chinese interior.
This is a problem, because as Christopher Johnson, formerly the CIA’s senior China analyst, recently told The Economist ‘In any air war we do great in the first couple of days,’ but ‘then we have to move everything back to Japan, and we can’t generate sufficient sorties from that point for deep strike on the mainland.’ And without being able to strike anti-ship systems in the mainland, American carriers operating off the Chinese coast would be placed in unacceptable danger. U.S. withdrawal from INF, however, could help reverse this dynamic and lead to a nightmare scenario for China.”