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The era of shattering treaties – Prelude to an Arms Race?

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Muhammad Faizan Fakhar |

On May 8, 2018, President Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Now, USA has plans to completely withdraw from yet another nuclear treaty known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The INF treaty was signed between the USA and USSR in 1987, at the height of the cold war. This treaty was aimed at eliminating short range [500-1000 kms] and intermediate range [1000-5,500 kms] missiles along with their launching pads.

The short and intermediate nuclear forces had put both the USA and Soviet Russia on a hair-trigger alert due to the short flight time [almost 10 minutes] of these forces.  Therefore, the significance of the treaty lied in the fact that it provided a sense of security to the European countries, which were directly threatened by the intermediate nuclear forces of Russia. On the other hand, this treaty also played an instrumental role in introducing peace and trust between two contenders of the cold war.

European states or even the nuclear ones might feel the need to make suitable technological adjustments in their nuclear capabilities. This could easily trigger an arms race in the continent of Europe.

However, over the past few years, both USA and Russia have repeatedly accused each other of violating the terms of the treaty. With the latest announcement of US withdrawal from the INF treaty, a new arms race could be triggered between not only USA and Russia, but also the USA and China. In order to understand the role of China in these unfolding events, it is important to examine the perceived threats of the USA from China.

China is on an economic rise for the past few decades. There is an increasing concern in the US strategic elite for a possible power struggle between China and USA in the near future. These concerns have been repeatedly raised by prominent political figures of US such as John Bolton, the sitting US national security advisor. Therefore, it can be observed that curbing China’s rise has been an important US strategic interest.

Read more: Russia warns Trump over ‘dangerous’ plan to quit nuclear treaty

As per the agreed terms of the INF treaty, USA cannot develop land-based cruise missiles or short or medium range.  The treaty does not include sea-based or air-based missile systems; however, these systems are expensive and complicated as compared to their land-based variants. The current nuclear deterrent of the USA against China mainly relies on its sea-based and air-based forces. If the USA withdraws from the treaty, it will have the option to deploy land-based missiles in any neighboring ally country such as Japan or the Philippines.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the USA now views INF treaty as restraining its security interests vis-a-vis China.  President Trump himself called for an inclusion of China in the INF treaty. But China has rejected these calls by terming them as mere ‘blackmail’.  While the option of withdrawing from INF may seem efficient to Washington, it could easily trigger an arms race between China and USA. Consequently, any development in the Chinese nuclear arsenal could instill a sense of insecurity in India, and the cycle goes on.

The significance of the treaty lied in the fact that it provided a sense of security to the European countries, which were directly threatened by the intermediate nuclear forces of Russia.

On the other hand, withdrawing from the INF treaty would also leave an open playing field for Russia. The USA has repeatedly accused Russia of violating the treaty terms by developing and testing missile systems of short and intermediate range. Russia has though always denied such allegations. Now with the termination of the treaty, Russia will have no legal obligation to restraint itself from the development of such forces.

The region that gets affected the most by the Russian nuclear forces is Europe. Due to close proximity with Russia, the European allies of USA would be under a direct threat from the Russian nuclear forces. As a result, the European allies may feel abandoned and could aspire for the development of their own nuclear forces as a deterrent against Russia.  Therefore, an arms race could ensue in the European region as well.

Read more: US Treaty pullout: EU urges talks to “preserve” nuclear treaty

Under these circumstances, one could ponder whether the withdrawals from such deals are signaling an increasingly insecure global position of the USA, compensated by an overtly offensive posture. Moreover, after the termination of the INF treaty, would other treaties, such as the New START Treaty, hold? In the cold war era, treaties and agreements proved to be useful tools to pacify the tensions and bring some degree of order.

Even today, global powers, such as USA and Russia, need more agreements in order to lead by example, instead of shattering the old ones.  However, if the trend of withdrawing from mutual agreements continues, the smaller nuclear states would have little to no incentive of disarming themselves or entering in any sort of arms control treaty.  On top of that, the termination of the INF treaty could most probably instigate an arms race on a multilateral level.  With Russia free to develop its short and intermediate nuclear forces, European states would most certainly feel threatened and insecure.

The USA has repeatedly accused Russia of violating the treaty terms by developing and testing missile systems of short and intermediate range.

As result, non-nuclear European states or even the nuclear ones might feel the need to make suitable technological adjustments in their nuclear capabilities. This could easily trigger an arms race in the continent of Europe.  On the other hand, if the USA redirects its nuclear deterrent against China by installing land-based missiles near its territory, China is bound to make some new developments to its own nuclear arsenal.

Read more: Nuclear Treaty Pullout: US must ‘think twice’ says China

This could set off a chain reaction and an arms race could result between China, India and consequently Pakistan. Nevertheless, the already elusive dream of arms control and disarmament could become an even harder goal to achieve with the termination of the INF treaty.

Muhammad Faizan Fakhar is a Senior Research fellow at South Asian Strategic Stability Institute. He can be reached at faizan.fakhar@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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