Trump's plans to scrap a nuclear pact with Russia could heighten tensions in Asia

Key Points
  • If the U.S. exits the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, Washington will be free to develop and install weapons on its military bases around Asia.
  • That's unlikely to sit well with China, who may look to compete with the U.S.
  • Any reaction from China to U.S. provocation, however, could spill over into India and Pakistan.
October 24, 2018: Thai sailors visiting Chinese guided missile destroyer Guangzhou during the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise at a military port in Zhanjiang.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Washington's plans to withdraw from a Cold War-era agreement with Moscow could have reverberating consequences around Asia, potentially escalating rivalry among nuclear-armed powers such as China and India.

President Donald Trump threatened on Oct. 20 to pull his country from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia — a bilateral deal that prohibits both nations from possessing, producing or test-flying a certain category of cruise missiles. The pact, signed in 1987, was instrumental to easing Cold War tensions. Trump claims Russian President Vladimir Putin has been violating the accord, but provided no details.

If the treaty is abandoned, Washington and Moscow will be free to develop and deploy more missiles —  a risky scenario for the European Union given its geographical proximity to Russia.

Less discussed, however, is the impact of Trump's decision on Asia.

The China factor

China, a major supplier and importer of weapons, is a major element in Trump's desire to leave the INF, strategists said. The White House has long been concerned about Beijing's massive rocket inventory and its militarization of the South China Sea.

Chinese missiles threaten American naval ships in the Western Pacific and neighboring U.S. military bases but because of the treaty, U.S. missile forces in Asia are limited, C. Raja Mohan, nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie India, wrote in a note.

That's why U.S. defense hawks, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, support withdrawal from the INF, Mohan said. To them, the treaty "was a bad idea since it left China and North Korea free to undermine the security of the U.S. and its allies in Asia."

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Beijing's arsenal of ballistic missiles — estimated to be over 2,000 in number — is a threat to countries like Taiwan, Japan and U.S. military forces in the region, said Amit Bhandari, fellow of energy and environment studies at Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House.

Trump has expressed his wish for Beijing to join the INF but Chinese President Xi Jinping's government has indicated it isn't interested.

If the U.S. leaves the treaty, it will be free to develop and install weapons on its military bases around Asia, according to Bhandari. It's possible Washington may deploy more ground-based systems in the Western Pacific or ramp up forces in Okinawa, echoed political intelligence firm Stratfor.

But Xi's administration may view those moves as a threat. In the past, Beijing has often introduced new missiles to its weapons arsenal in order to catch up with U.S. military advancements. "China may now find itself at the receiving end of an asymmetrical threat that it was earlier posing to other powers in the region," Bhandari said.

U.S. efforts to ramp up its security presence in the region — from installing an anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea to undertaking freedom of navigation operations near Taiwan — have already been met with stern criticism from Beijing.

'Arms racing is a cascading phenomenon'

Any reaction from China to U.S. provocation, however, could spill over into India and Pakistan.

"Arms racing is a cascading phenomenon," Rajesh Basrur, professor of international relations at Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University, said in a note. "When China competes with the U.S., it arouses insecurity and a competitive drive in India, which in turn does the same in Pakistan."

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Earlier this month, New Delhi purchased $5 billion of advanced missile technology from Moscow — a deal seen as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's way of asserting power in South Asia, where Beijing has been growing increasingly assertive.

If Trump abandons the INF, New Delhi "will have to seriously examine the implications of the next steps by the major powers," said Carnegie India's Mohan. India "will have to think long and hard about its missile program by focusing on the urgent need to ramp up the domestic effort as well as diversify its international collaboration on hypersonic weapons," he continued.

In fact, the development of hypersonic vehicles in India, China, Russia and the U.S. have led many to believe that a global arms race has already begun.

"The future is predictable," Basrur said. "Fueled by strategic tensions, the new arms race will continue unabated; somewhere down the road, a crisis will occur; negotiations will commence; and competing powers will try and attain a stable equilibrium."