The U.S. has announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty with Russia after having a domestic conversation on the possibility since mid-2018. The treaty itself will take six months or more to expire officially, but the strategic implications of the move are already coming in play.

On the surface, it may be perceived a reckless and unpredictable move coming from U.S. President Donald Trump. However, it presents real opportunities for the U.S. to redefine its strategic priorities. Especially with the rise of China, who is not a signatory of the INF, an U.S. withdrawal could potentially pivot to a renewed arms control deal that includes China in response to an increasingly multipolar world.

In this article, I will explain the ways an U.S. withdrawal from the INF could in fact be beneficial to Taiwan, a party that is often caught between the great power struggle between the U.S. and China.


Credit: AP / Paul Zinken

Bombs away: The INF disarmament treaty is coming to an end.

Russia: Non-compliance and realistic changes

Although Russia is a party to the Soviet-era treaty, it has often been found to be in non-compliance of the INF. Russia has tested missile units in violation of the agreement as early as 2014, with the issue renewed in 2017 when it deployed said missiles units. Between 2018 and 2019, the discussion of an potential INF withdrawal has been aimed towards this concern, since the treaty effectively now only regulates U.S.-side deployment and restricts U.S. power.

It is, however, both unlikely and unwise for the U.S. to counter Russian violations with actual deployments of its own previously banned missiles, for several reasons.

The Trump administration has taken a much less confrontational stance towards Russia compared to the administration of former President Barack Obama. This includes a less confrontational stance towards tensions in Syria and Ukraine. Domestically, this also includes a more passive attitude towards allegations of Russian election interference despite domestic calls for investigation.

The most important reason of all is perhaps the shift of focus from Russia to China, which is now engaged in a great power conflict with the U.S. on both economic and security issues. Given disputes primarily centered around the South China Sea, North Korea, and (more recently in the news again) Taiwan, the U.S. may be too preoccupied with geopolitical issues in Asia to start any new conflicts with Russia.


Credit: Reuters / US Navy

The US Navy guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook transits the Bosphorus Strait.

It is therefore unlikely that the State Department decided to withdraw from the INF to operate against Russia. Rather, China has become a bigger strategic concern than Russia in recent years.

Things have changed since the treaty was originally agreed upon. The Soviet Union no longer exist. The costs borne by an INF withdrawal are also mostly borne by U.S. allies rather than the U.S. itself, since the INF banned short- and intermediate-range missiles which were mainly used as tools of regional power projection.

China: A rising power

China has not been regulated by the INF and, as a result, has set up robust land-based missile capabilities. This puts it at an asymmetry with the United States, since the U.S. has been restricted by the INF from developing and placing land-based short- and intermediate-range missiles in East Asia.

According to a report published on Jan. 28, 2019 by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a body under the U.S. Congress, the Trump administration’s decision to quit the INF is most likely primarily out of strategic concerns for China. According to the report, thousands of land-based missiles now put major U.S. assets in range, such as South Korea and Japan, as well as hundreds of missiles that can reach the U.S. airbase at Guam.

This also includes thousands of missiles with the capacity to strike Taiwan. As the military of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) expands, so does its ability to deny U.S. access to areas of key interest, such as Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. The U.S. has traditionally been less able to balance itself vis-a-vis China due to INF restrictions, so this withdrawal could be seen as an attempt by the U.S. to free itself from such a handicap.


Credit: AP / Bullit Marquez

Chinese sailors wave from the 'Wuhu' guided missile frigate at a port call in Manila on Jan. 17, 2019.

US: Post-INF Asia strategy

A post-INF United States can now deploy shorter-ranged land-based missiles near the Pacific, meaning that they are no longer restricted from deploying missiles in a closer, more aggressive manner. It is, however, unlikely that the U.S. would actually mobilize such moves.

It would likely spur a U.S.-China missiles arms race similar to the U.S.-Soviet cold war if the U.S. pursues an aggressive land-based missile deployment strategy in the Pacific. At the same time, moves to increase U.S.-China tensions on top of current disputes would likely be unpopular domestically and internationally.

Armaments of foreign military bases in Japan or Korea would be perceived as provocations towards China and would draw domestic opposition to intervention in the U.S. absent initial Chinese aggression. Increased geopolitical risks would hurt business in the region against U.S. interests, pushing the policy against domestic lobbyists.

Room for multilateralism and China’s interest

The Chinese position on U.S. withdrawal may seem paradoxical: It does not wish for the expiration of the Russia-U.S. deal while it simultaneously opposes an expansion of the treaty to include itself. The implication of this position, however, simply means that China wishes to continue to expand its area-denial capability while two security competitors are handicapped by the treaty.

China does have an interest in being included in the deal. If Russia is to expand its missile capability, it would attain a better capability to threaten China. Russia-China relations would likely deteriorate if Russia is to follow through with a missile development plan that is already underway after the breakdown of the treaty.


Credit: AP / Military News Agency

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) listens to a brief on a missile at Su'ao naval station during a navy exercise in April 2018.

How can Taiwan benefit?

In the short term, this event would likely not affect Taiwan, since changes to regional military activity would encounter some inertia, in addition to the six-month waiting period as per the treaty terms. There are two likely outcomes for Taiwan: Either an eventual Chinese inclusion to a new treaty that resembles the INF, or an increased U.S. military capacity in the West Pacific. Both of these outcomes would most likely produce favorable results for Taiwan.

The former, a possible but unlikely choice, would be the best outcome for Taiwan. Chinese missile pressure would be alleviated if China disarms along with the U.S. Taiwan would then be able to catch a breath as it has borne the brunt of Chinese military expansion and pressure over the past decades.

The latter, which is most likely if the U.S.-China-Russia dynamic runs its course without much change, would likely result in increased flexibility for the U.S. to defend its allies in East Asia. The U.S. military would be better able to balance against PRC missile capabilities and, as a result, speak out for Taiwan internationally with more force and ultimate effect.

Having discussed all these factors, it should be brought to attention that arms reduction would be in everyone’s best interest. Although the current U.S.-China conflict complicates much-needed cooperation in areas like nuclear weapons deployment, Taiwan could potentially stand to benefit from a U.S. pivot to East Asia in 2019. This would be an improvement compared to the status quo, sharing efforts to resist Chinese pressure with the U.S. and taking them off Taiwan’s shoulders.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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