On March 4, President Vladimir Putin suspended Moscow’s adherence to the 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (the INF Treaty), which eliminated their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. This act represents both the formal Russian response to U.S. demarches that Moscow return to full compliance with the Treaty and, in effect, the Treaty’s demise. Chinese officials and analysts have expressed alarm about the Treaty’s unraveling. Yet, Chinese efforts would have a greater impact if Beijing made a greater contribution to promoting global nuclear arms control.
In addition to their mutual accusations of breaching the Treaty, the decisions by Russia and the United States to withdraw reflect their concerns about the Treaty’s failure to address China’s missile buildup. For years, Russian officials have pressed their U.S. counterparts to include China in nuclear arms talks even as previous U.S. administrations sought further Russian-U.S. bilateral cuts.
Conceptually, Russians understand the logic of limiting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s growing capabilities to attack Russian territory in some future contingency. Practically, moreover, Russian security would be enhanced if Beijing agreed to make its strategic policies more transparent and constrained. However, the Russian government has eschewed saying or doing anything that might upset the Chinese government. As with other areas of international security, Moscow wants Washington to take the lead in pressuring Beijing to become a more responsible nuclear missile state.
Some U.S. military experts have wanted to place conventional intermediate-range missiles in Asia to negate China’s strengthening anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and dispel those in Japan, South Korea, and Australia who doubt Washington’s willingness or ability to protect them from foreign threats.
Economic considerations are also driving U.S. (and Russian) interest in deploying ground-launched intermediate-range missiles in Asia. In accordance with the Treaty, which bans only land-based systems, the Pentagon has relied on expensive and aging sea-launched cruise missiles to cover targets 500-5500km away. These platforms cost significantly more to maintain than land-based systems. There are also a limited number of U.S. Navy ships that can carry them—and they have important competing missions. Meanwhile, China and now Russia can deploy an unlimited number of low-cost mobile land-launched missiles that could attack a range of targets in Asia.
Chinese officials have consistently called on the United States and Russia to take greater steps toward nuclear disarmament without making, or even pledging to make, any reductions in their own forces. Chinese scholars argue that their country’s declaration of not first using nuclear weapons against other countries should compensate for Beijing’s standoffish policy towards nuclear arms control. Yet, such a purely declarative policy is unenforceable, reversible, and vulnerable to changes in the strategic environment.
Even if one sets aside the first-use excuse, and accepts a Chinese waiver on participating in Russian-U.S. nuclear disarmament negotiations given China’s smaller strategic nuclear force, the same considerations do not apply to intermediate-range missiles; the PLA has more systems of this range than Moscow and Washington combined.
Beijing would benefit from constraining its missile forces. If China persists in its military buildup, U.S. allies and partners concerned about China would become more amendable to hosting new U.S. INF-range missiles, develop their own offensive strike weapons, or bolstering their U.S.-linked missile defenses. Any of these decisions could lead to a sharp downturn in these countries’ ties with China, as occurred recently after South Korea began deploying U.S. THAAD missile defenses on its soil in 2016, which harmed both countries’ commercial ties.
The United States could also be harmed by this dynamic. None of these U.S. allied governments, or their publics, are eager to host U.S. weapons systems that could damage their economic and security ties with China. They would much prefer that China join Russia and the United States to negotiate missile limits. Such arms control arrangements could also impart a welcome boost to their trilateral relations, which have been fraying due to many security and economic disputes.
To mitigate popular opposition in these nations to hosting missiles aimed at China, and to make them more secure from preemptive attack, the United States could station any new land-based intermediate-range missiles on U.S. territory, but adopt contingency plans to rapidly re-deploy them to other Asian-Pacific territories in a crisis. However, this option would reduce the cost savings from using land- rather than sea-based systems, impose new logistical requirements, and pose risks, since redeploying weapons closer to China in tense times could, in some circumstances, prove destabilizing rather than deterring.
Some may think that calling on China to join an INF-like treaty is impossible. But Beijing has altered many of its previously “unchangeable” foreign policies in recent years. The PLA has begun building aircraft carriers, establishing foreign bases, and brandishing its nuclear arsenal for television audiences. Therefore, the Chinese government could also change how it approaches arms control, especially under the pressure of recent developments: worsening China-U.S. relations, improving prospects for Korean peace, and the strategic uncertainty induced by the collapse of Russian-U.S. arms control.
Even if the Chinese government is not yet willing to engage in formal nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia and the United States, Beijing could make a significant contribution to global strategic stability by enriching its official dialogue on these issues. Furthermore, China has a unique opportunity to securely reduce its traditional military opaqueness due to the PLA’s narrowing its military gap with Russia and the United States.
A few years ago, China did engage in some strategic security and space security talks with the Obama administration. In his speech at last month’s 55th Munich Security Conference, moreover, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, argued that “multilateralism provides an effective way of upholding peace and promoting development, and the world needs multilateralism now more than ever.” The next logical step would be for China would be to participate in official discussions regarding its nuclear employment and targeting doctrines and, like Russia and the United States, and make public the number of China’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems.