The recent announcement by US President Trump that the United States intended to withdraw from the INF Treaty signed by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev of the Soviet Union in December 1987 is important for a number of reasons.
Blaming Trump for the decision to withdraw from the treaty (which in any case requires the giving of six months notice) misses the point. Historically, the United States has only ever entered into treaties when it perceived an advantage accruing to the United States. It has not hesitated to withdraw from treaties when domestic political considerations dictate, or when the initial perceived advantage no longer exists.
The administration of George W Bush unilaterally withdrew for example, from the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2001. The Obama administration announced a $1.5 trillion “upgrade” of its nuclear weapons in 2015, a move that included such policy initiatives as developing the B61-12, a nuclear bomb with a precision guidance system with a penetrating capacity built to explode underground. This bomb is expected to be deployed in a number of Western European countries including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. These plans violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty that the US signed and ratified.
Similarly, in 2018 the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, that it had been instrumental in negotiating only three years earlier.
Historians have long documented the sorry history of treaties made between the United States government and the multiple Native American tribes, almost all without exception broken.
The latest announcement therefore is hardly in the category of being either shocking or surprising. More significant is the reasoning behind the decision and what that indicates about future developments and nuclear risks.
Trump himself gave two reasons for departing the treaty: that Russia was violating it; and that China (not a party to the treaty) was developing its own weapons system that the 2018 United States Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) said was “already the largest medium and intermediate range missile force in Asia and probably the world.”
The first of these claims may or may not be true. The Russians have denied it and their requests to Washington for evidence of the alleged breaches and clarification of the allegations has simply being ignored.
The Chinese have certainly developed a range of weaponry in the Dong Feng (East Wind) category that has transformed the strategic balance in East Asia. The logical response to both American complaints however, would be to (a) expand the signatories to the INF Treaty to include not only China, but also the other nuclear powers, including India, Israel and Pakistan, whom Trump failed to mention; and (b) improve the inspection and verification systems to ensure compliance.
That neither of these options were considered points to other, more probable explanations for the American decision. The most probable basis for the policy shift is that the United States has lost its previously dominant, if not hegemonic position as a military power.
That loss of dominance has been brought about by Russia and China, which the aforesaid NPR identified as the two strategic opponents of the United States, posing the greatest threat to continued American dominance.
Consistent with that strategic posture the United States under President Clinton and all subsequent Presidents have expanded NATO membership in violation of the undertaking given by GHW Bush to President Gorbachev in 1989. NATO is now on Russia’s borders and engages in endless provocations and threats against Russia. It would only be surprising if Russia did not take steps to safeguard its security and territorial integrity.
China has faced similar pressures, ranging from more than 400 US military bases ringing its periphery, to the endless provocations in the South China Sea, and most recently the decision to sell the Aegis-Ashore ballistic missile system to Japan. Using the MK-41 launcher, the Aegis-Ashore System can fire intermediate range Tomahawk missiles. This also is in violation of the INF Treaty.
National Security Adviser John Bolton, widely thought of as the driver of the decision to leave the INF Treaty, has stated that he would like to see United States missiles installed in Taiwan. This would not only be an enormous provocation to China, but the missiles would also be in a position to threaten the Russian Vilyuchinsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
China’s Global Times, whose editorial stance reliably reflects official thinking in Beijing, stated that the US decision could trigger a global arms race and add instability to international and regional stability.
Global Times also claimed that China’s nuclear power (weapons) development has been outpaced by its strategic risks. That latter claim is to be doubted. The Dong Feng class of weapons includes the DF-21D, a hypersonic cruise missile that would quickly eliminate any US aircraft carrier and it’s support flotilla. It has an operational range of 1450km, which renders ineffective the aircraft on the carrier. Later versions are expected to have a range of 3000-5000km. It has rendered obsolete the whole US carrier based strategy.
The DF41 is also a hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missile with 9-11 independently targetable nuclear warheads. US allies such as Japan and Australia have no defence against this system. A failure to acknowledge the reality of modern Chinese ballistic missile systems is one of the major failings of Australian strategic thinking.
Following on from the United States abandonment of the ABM Treaty in 2002, Russia also developed new missile systems. President Putin announced the results on 1 March 2018. Analysts such as Andrei Martyanov (Losing Military Supremacy, 2018) have argued that Russia is decades ahead of the United States in military technology.
It is these strategic realities that in this writer’s view have driven the current United States policy. They cannot match either Russia or China, so the only hope of achieving a strategic advantage is by placing nuclear missiles on or close to the borders of Russia and China. This reduces to 1.5-3.0 minutes the warning time for an incoming missile to be effectively countered.
In this way, US military strategists hope to be able to achieve a first strike capacity and be immune from retaliation. Such thinking is literally insane. The Russian “Dead Hand” System for example, would still enable devastating retaliation.
It would be scant consolation the Russians would be martyrs and go to heaven whereas their opponents would go to hell, as Putin recently suggested. We would still all be dead.
The real danger arising from the United States withdrawal from the INF is that the risk of such an outcome is measurably increased. Our best hope is that saner heads will prevail in Washington, although on past performance that may be a vain hope.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.