Will US withdrawal from INF treaty trigger a new arms race?

By Sitwat Waqar Bokhari

On October 20, 2018, the United States unilaterally declared its intention to withdraw from the Cold War-era “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF)”; signed between Russia and the US in 1987 to ban ground-launched nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. Trump administration’s grounds for withdrawal were Moscow’s alleged violations of the treaty, first reported by US administration in 2014, in addition to Beijing’s rising missile ambitions that had vexed the top US military leaders since the President Obama’s second term.

In response, Putin also declared suspension of Russia’s obligations under the treaty, affirming that while Moscow would not launch first in a nuclear conflict, it would “annihilate” any adversary; thus re-stating the policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” In August, the landmark arms control treaty will terminate unless both sides can resolve their differences over the accord. USA’s unilateral pull-out is not only dangerous for regional and global security, but it can also trigger a new arms race. In fact, according to former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, Trump’s nuclear treaty withdrawal is an announcement of a new arms race in itself.

To counter China’s “perceived threat”, USA has also stepped up the status of its main partner in the region – India. In a recent Pentagon report, India has been termed as a “key element” and a major defense partner in the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. As part of its efforts to deepen bilateral strategic partnership, the Trump administration also recently discussed a potential missile defense cooperation with India. As a result, many are terming India as the “US policeman in the region”, which can take Washington’s encouragement as a green light for developing and deploying weapons systems of its own. If this occurs, it can pose serious threats to regional security in the backdrop of Prime Minister Modi’s recent warmongering during his election campaign. Besides, India also recently placed a US $5 billion order to purchase S-400 air defense system from Russia.

Moreover, in a Pentagon report on China, released in January 2019, the US reiterated its concerns about China’s growing military capability, particularly as tensions between the two rose during the course of their heated trade war. The US concerns over the rise of a hegemonic China also stem from the super power’s long-held wariness about China’s Belt and Road expansion, particularly the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan in South Asia, where the US has long coveted its influence. Now coupled with India’s increasing defense cooperation with the US, and the US withdrawal from the INF, the duo may collaborate in developing more defense missiles and possibly deploy them on the territory of India neighboring China, and closer to Russia.

According to the US Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Review, released in January this year, the United States and its allies face a more complex and challenging aerial threat environment than ever before. It emphasizes the need for adapting US missile defense policy, posture, and programs to the strategic environment of great power competition. As per the US National Security Strategy and the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR), United States is set to continue its reliance on nuclear deterrence for strategic nuclear attack from major powers. However, under the new Missile Defense Review, and as a result of US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, USA can now more aggressively pursue a variety of kinetic and non-kinetic means to counter regional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and hypersonic glide vehicles from any adversary.

Keeping in view the emerging unrestrained arms build-up, it is feared that China can in reaction start maximizing its own arsenal, posing the possibility of renewed tensions in the future. Before the US withdrawal from the INF, Chinese Foreign Ministry had urged the US to “think twice before acting”, stating that a unilateral US withdrawal from the treaty would have a negative impact on global security. For US National Security Advisor, John R. Bolton, the Chinese statement was absurd as it wanted the US to stay in the treaty but was itself not bound by any treaty.

According to a Politico article, the US officials had deliberated on several options before finalizing its decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. These included bringing China into the INF treaty, negotiating a new comprehensive treaty with China and other nuclear powers, and developing new American weapons to counter the ascendant China. It appears that the US went for the last option, as tensions also escalated between Pakistan and India, where the duo could not have been brought on the same page to sign such a treaty.

Interestingly, according to military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, the US and NATO at the moment do not have a significant number of ballistic high-precision medium-range missiles, which will take at least five years to develop. The US withdrawal from the treaty currently only provides Russia with total nuclear superiority.

These emerging security dynamics certainly create a volatile situation for the global community as well as regional security. It calls on the SCO countries to try to mitigate the situation so the arms race could be curbed. In particular, it poses implications for Pakistan in view of the US appointment of India as its “policeman” in the region. Pakistan would be best to proactively take sides with forces that are opposed to an arms race as compared to India, which has jumped on the bandwagon with the US.

A proposed solution may be creating a global arms control arrangement, wherein countries with missiles ranges above 500 could be made parties. Globally, over thirty countries have missiles, amongst which 17 have missiles with ranges above 500 Kilometers. Such an arrangement could cover all such countries and prevent an arms race that can prove lethal for the global community. The 21st century – with all the lessons learned from the two World Wars of the 20th century – certainly calls for better policies on the part of major powers for achieving world peace and ruling out anarchy rather than paving the way for another global conflict.

The author, Sitwat Waqar Bokhari, is a Research Fellow at CRSS and Program Manager for Afghan Studies Center. She tweets @SitwatWB

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