US treaty pullout may raise Asia-Pac tensions

WASHINGTON • A US withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty with Russia could give the Pentagon new options to counter Chinese missile advances, but experts warn that the ensuing arms race could greatly escalate tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

United States officials have been warning for years that the US was being put at a disadvantage by China's development of increasingly sophisticated land-based missile forces, which the Pentagon could not match, thanks to the US treaty with Russia.

President Donald Trump has signalled he may soon give the Pentagon a freer hand to confront those advances if he makes good on threats to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which required elimination of short-and intermediate-range nuclear and conventional missiles.

Mr Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute, said a treaty pullout could pave the way for the US to field easier-to-hide, road-mobile conventional missiles in places like Guam and Japan.

That would make it harder for China to consider a conventional first strike against US ships and bases in the region.

It could also force Beijing into a costly arms race.

"It will change the picture fundamentally," Mr Blumenthal said.

 
 

Even as Mr Trump has blamed Russian violations of the treaty for his decision, he has also pointed a finger at China. Beijing was not party to the INF treaty and has been fielding new and more deadly missile forces.

These include China's DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which has a maximum range of 4,000km and which the Pentagon says can threaten US land and sea-based forces as far away as Guam.

It was first fielded in 2016.

Ms Kelly Magsamen, who helped craft the Pentagon's Asian policy under the Obama administration, cautioned that any new US policy guiding missile deployments in Asia would need to be carefully coordinated with allies.

Mismanagement of expectations surrounding a US treaty pullout could also unsettle security in the Asia-Pacific, she warned.

"It's potentially destabilising," she said.

Asked about Mr Trump's comments, China's Foreign Affairs Ministry said a unilateral US withdrawal would have a negative impact and urged the US to "think thrice before acting."

"Talking about China on the issue of unilaterally pulling out of the treaty is completely mistaken," spokesman Hua Chunying said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2018, with the headline 'US treaty pullout may raise Asia-Pac tensions'. Print Edition | Subscribe