U.S. President Donald Trump has officially announced his decision to withdraw the country from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Signed in 1987 between the leaders of the United States and the then-Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the agreement bans ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges from 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. Under the agreement, the United States destroyed 846 missiles until June 1991, and the USSR 1,846. Pulling out of the INF agreement, which has symbolic significance of deterring the two countries from engaging in nuclear and missile competition, is thus a dangerous decision that may led to an arms race.
Still, Trump’s announcement to ditch the treaty is believed to be part of his strategy to pressure Russia and China, rather than reflecting an intention to reinforce the country’s nuclear capability. Russia has been accused of violating the agreement by developing a short-range ballistic missile Iskander systems in response to Washington’s deployment of a missile defense system in Europe in the mid-2000s, and deploying a ground-based intermediate-range missile in March last year.
Yet, it may be China that President Trump is truly targeting. Not being a signatory to the INF, Beijing has made massive investments in the development of intermediate-range missiles without any restraints. Harry Harris, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and current U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, said that some 95 percent of China’s 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles would violate the INF agreement if China was a party to the treaty.
However, even if it is true that Russia and China have intensified their missile capabilities, unilaterally pulling out of the treaty from the U.S. side cannot be a right solution, and they should rather persuade the two countries and strengthen the treaty. Given that U.S. Defense Minister James Mattis said last November that the United States did not have a plan to withdraw from the treaty and would urge Russia to comply with the INF, it seems that President Trump has pushed ahead with his way of negotiating yet again. It has been Trump’s style to just leave a treaty and try to ink a new agreement by exerting pressure. It would be a relief if the U.S. decision to withdraw from the INF can lead to the establishment of a new system to control the nuclear and missile development of countries including China. However, during a long, arduous process to set up the system, the world may have to find itself in a vicious cycle of superpower’s nuclear arms race seen in the era of the Cold War.