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Opinion

Ending Cold War nuclear pact threatens Asia's security

Trump's plan to scrap US-Russia treaty will annoy China and unsettle regional allies

To the surprise of almost no one, U.S. President Donald Trump, fresh from ripping up the Iran nuclear deal and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord, is about to scrap yet another international agreement. This time, it is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

But unlike previous wrecking exercises aimed at erasing Obama-era policies, this one would obliterate a signature legacy of the Republican Ronald Reagan -- one that was a milestone of the winding down of the Cold War.

If implemented, the decision will have geopolitical reverberations far beyond the two signatories, and not just in Europe, but especially in Asia, home to five other powers with both missiles and nuclear bombs, most prominently, China.

Trump's move does not yet rule out hope of a future multilateral arrangement that would also cover China and Asia's other nuclear powers, but amid growing U.S.-China rivalry and Trump's antipathy toward multilateralism, few see such an accord as a realistic prospect.

To be fair, times change. There is no question that Russia was cheating -- in 2014 Barack Obama called Moscow out on its testing and then deployment of medium-range cruise missiles (the treaty bans land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with a 500-5,500 km range). The Trump administration's logic is reality-based. But this is not the first case of cheating in an arms treaty. Consulting first with NATO and Asian allies, as well as going the extra mile to fix the treaty before declaring an intent to kill it would have been prudent.

Trump's move also reflects a resurgence of great power competition and a fraying of the post-World War II order. The December 2017 White House National Security Strategy document describes both Russia and China as "revisionist powers" and "strategic competitors."

Moreover, in today's world, there are proliferating missile powers -- China, Iran, India, Pakistan, North Korea -- all unconstrained by the INF.

Trump's move would be as much or more about China as Russia. As he said: "If Russia's doing it and if China is doing it and were adhering to the agreement, that's unacceptable." After meeting with Putin on Oct. 23, National security adviser John Bolton added that Moscow has also expressed concern about Chinese missiles, 95% of which are of INF range.

One intriguing question is the prospective impact of a post-INF world on Sino-Russian relations, now rather close, as was underscored by the September unprecedented Vostok joint military exercises.

Nonetheless, worried at being China's junior partner, Moscow has long deployed two Iskander-M missile brigades in its Eastern district near the Chinese border. While its new INF Treaty-busting SSC-8 missiles are aimed at Europe, the specter of potential deployments in Russia's Far East could cool Sino-Russian amity.

The idea of expanding the INF into a multilateral pact has been around for a while, and in theory would make the most sense. But Russia has been modernizing its arsenal in recent years, and its shortcomings in conventional forces helps explain why it has developed INF missiles. Moreover, in the three decades since the INF treaty was signed, China has amassed a missile arsenal aimed at denying U.S. maritime access -- and putting U.S. naval forces at risk in a crisis.

The INF treaty only bans ground-launched missiles, and many would argue that U.S. air and sea-based missiles are adequate for deterrence. Moreover, the U.S. has no nuclear-tipped INF-range missiles. Some experts speculate it could put nuclear warheads on the 1550 mile-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, but it could take 7-10 years to deploy a new intermediate range missile.

It is also unclear how U.S. interests would benefit from scrapping the INF Treaty or where it would exercise its new right to deploy intermediate-range weapons. U.S. NATO allies would not accept such missiles on their soil.

Similarly, Japan has expressed alarm. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, called it "undesirable" saying we hope it (treaty withdrawal) would be avoided." It is doubtful given Japan's Pacifist political dynamics, that Japan would host U.S. INF deployments, nor would other U.S. Asian allies be enthusiastic.

Japan has growing fears about the reliability of U.S. deterrence, but they have at least as much to do with Trump's antipathy toward alliances as U.S. military capabilities. This is reflected in Japan's debate over the past few years about acquiring its own conventional strike capabilities.

Perhaps the most worrying element in a possible U.S. withdrawal from the INF pact is the concern that the stabilizing framework developed to manage competition during the Cold War, may be unraveling. Russia has developed a new doctrine suggesting that in a conflict it might use tactical nuclear weapons to deter further escalation. The fear is that we seem to be in a mindless action-reaction mode that may be lowering the threshold for nuclear use.

The U.S.-Russia New START agreement -- a broader accord which limits both sides to 1,550 nuclear warheads (700 deployed) -- expires in 2021. Vacating the INF treaty may make negotiating an extension far harder -- let alone pursue further reductions. This will undoubtedly be on the agenda when Trump meets Putin in Paris on Nov. 11.

For U.S. allies in Asia the key question is how reliable is the American security umbrella? Is the current U.S. military deployment adequate for deterrence, or would INF-range weapons bolster it?

With the prospect of a new Cold War with China on the horizon, an arms control treaty framework could play a key stabilizing role as it did in the first Cold War. The fear is that a new arms race may undermine deterrence by lowering the threshold for nuclear use and blurring the firebreak between conventional forces and escalation to nuclear.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Twitter: @Rmanning4

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