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International Relations

Trump gears up for China nuclear threat by exiting Russia pact

Sino-American rivalry bleeds from trade to national security

A Russian cruise missile is moved into position. A U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty prohibits the countries from developing or deploying intermediate-range cruise missiles.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump is pulling the U.S. out of a landmark nuclear pact with Russia in a move that could not only revive tensions between the Cold War rivals, but also be intended as a jab against China's ambitions for greater economic and military influence.

Trump ostensibly blamed Russia's nuclear development when he announced Saturday that the U.S. would leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. "If Russia's doing it and if China's doing it and we're adhering to the agreement, that's unacceptable," Trump said, expressing his desire to develop new nuclear weapons.

The treaty, signed by then-leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, bans the U.S. and Russia from developing or deploying ground-based cruise missiles with a range of 500 km to 5,500 km. It tapped the brakes on the arms race between the two powers and helped steer them toward disarmament.

The U.S. has claimed that Russia has cheated on the agreement since the presidency of Barack Obama. The situation has only escalated since, with the American military accusing Russia in March 2017 of deploying SSC-8 cruise missiles in violation of the treaty. These missiles are considered a threat to NATO members.

"The United States is reviewing options in our diplomacy and defense posture," Defense Secretary James Mattis said earlier this month, calling Russian violations of the treaty "untenable."

But Russia denies these allegations and has pushed back against a U.S. exit. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Sunday called Trump's remarks "disturbing and dangerous," Interfax reported. The Russian news agency also quoted Gorbachev calling an exit from the deal a "mistake" that could destroy every American and Soviet effort toward reducing nuclear arms.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton is meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Moscow this week to discuss the future of the treaty.

For Trump, pulling out is not just about Russia. The bilateral treaty does not prevent other countries, such as China, from advancing their nuclear capabilities, and some in Washington are concerned it could cause the U.S. to fall behind.

"America's military remains the strongest in the world. However, U.S. advantages are shrinking as rival states modernize and build up their conventional and nuclear forces," the Trump administration warned in its National Security Strategy published in December.

"China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests," the document said, slamming them as "revisionist powers."

February's Nuclear Posture Review, which outlines the U.S. nuclear strategy for the next five to 10 years, also warned that even as the U.S. reduces its nuclear arsenal, China and Russia are moving in the "opposite direction." The administration is responding with more flexible deterrence options and the development of a new low-yield warhead.

Still, neither the U.S. nor Russia wants a full-on arms race. The U.S. posted its highest budget deficit in six years for the fiscal year ended in September, prompting Trump on Wednesday to order his cabinet to lop 5% off the budget of every department. Russia also has limited resources to devote to arms development. Washington could be hoping for some kind of breakthrough during Bolton's trip to Moscow.

The U.S. and Russia held 6,450 and 6,850 nuclear warheads, respectively, as of January, accounting for over 90% of the global total, according to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. An end to the INF Treaty may throw up a major roadblock to nuclear disarmament, and could undermine U.S. demands for North Korea's denuclearization.

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