(CNSNews.com) – With the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty now dead, Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the weekend voiced hope that the U.S. would deploy new ground-launched, long-range precision missiles in the Asia-Pacific as soon as possible
Speaking during a trip to Australia, Esper said he would prefer to see the missiles in place within months rather than years. He stressed the missiles would provide a conventional deterrent, unlike the potentially nuclear-capable missiles which the U.S. accuses Russia of developing in violation of the now defunct Cold War-era treaty.
Beijing is watching developments warily. State media warned that any country in Asia agreeing to host new U.S. ground-launched missiles would make itself a target for retaliation.
The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in an editorial Sunday China hopes that Japan and South Korea “will not turn themselves to cannon-fodder in the aggressive U.S. Asian policy.”
“Any country accepting U.S. [missile] deployment would be against China and Russia, directly or indirectly, and draw fire against itself,” it warned.
“If they assist the U.S. to threaten China and Russia, China-Russia retaliations will cause no less loss to their national interests than those caused by the U.S. pressure.”
The Global Times called on all countries in Asia to resist U.S. attempts to provoke a new arms race in the region and to force them to take sides.
It said the U.S. strategy in the region could compel China “to build a super weapons arsenal, certainly not in line with long-term U.S. interests.”
The Trump administration formally exited the INF Treaty last week, following a long dispute over Russia’s development and deployment of a nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missile (designated SSC-8 or 9M729) with a range that was banned under the INF Treaty.
The withdrawal came after Russia was given a six-month notice period – described by the State Department as “a final opportunity to correct its noncompliance” – but to no avail.
The 1987 treaty banned all ground-launched cruise or ballistic missile with ranges between roughly 300 and 3,400 miles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations, with NATO’s backing, accused Russia of breaching the treaty since at least the mid-2000s. Moscow denies it.
Speaking to reporters en route to Sydney for annual talks involving the two allies’ secretaries of defense and state, Esper said the Pentagon wanted to ensure there are ground-launched missiles “sooner rather than later” in both the European and Asia Pacific theaters, in the latter case “because of the importance of great distances we need to cover” in that region.
He pushed back on questions about concerns the U.S. would trigger a new nuclear arms race.
“Right now, we don’t have plans to build nuclear-tipped INF-range weapons,” he stressed. “It’s the Russians who have developed, non-compliant, likely, possibly nuclear capable weapons.”
Esper did not say where the U.S. would like to see the new missiles based, but said such matters would be discussed with allies. Key U.S. allies in Asia include South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Australia.
Asked how he expected China to respond to the presence of new U.S. intermediate-range missiles in the region, Esper said the Chinese should not be surprised. He pointed out that 80 percent of China’s missile inventory falls within the range that was banned under the INF.
(China was not a party to the treaty, which was negotiated between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. China insists it needs its ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles as a deterrent, given that four of its neighbors – Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan – are nuclear-armed.)
Missiles down under?
In interactions with the press in Sydney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked whether Australia might be asked to host missiles in its Northern Territory, but said only that decisions on deployments would be done “with deep consultation with every partner.”
“Decisions on force deployments, missile deployments, all the things we do around the world are things that we constantly evaluate,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re protecting our partners, protecting American interests.”
“It is of course the case that when we employ these systems around the world with our friends and allies, we do so with their consent, we do so with respect to their sovereignty,” he also said, adding that such decisions would be based on “mutual benefit to each of the countries” involved.
The northern Australian city of Darwin is now temporary home to some 2,500 U.S. Marines who are deployed in rotation for training purposes. Darwin is some 3,100 miles from Shanghai – towards the upper end of the likely range of the envisaged missiles.
“How would Beijing feel if Australia had missiles in Darwin?” Pompeo’s Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, was asked.
Payne replied that U.S. decisions on whether to locate missiles “are strategic decisions for the United States, and I’m sure they’ll be made in consultation with key partners, as the secretary has outlined.”
She reaffirmed Australia’s support for the U.S. decision to leave the INF Treaty following Russia’s non-compliance.
Responding to the demise of the INF Treaty, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov late last week urged the U.S. to implement a moratorium on missile deployments.
But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking in Brussels on Friday, dismissed Russia’s proposal as “not a credible offer.”
“Russia has deployed [INF-violating] missiles for years,” he said. “So it is zero credibility in offering a moratorium on missiles they are already deploying.”
“What they could have done, and what they should have done, was to respect the INF Treaty, which is not a moratorium but which is a legal ban on all these missiles,” Stoltenberg said.
“So if Russia really wants to avoid intermediate-range weapons systems in Europe, first of all they could stop deploying their own systems. Second, they could destroy those systems they have now deployed for some years. And third, they could have respected the INF Treaty. To offer a moratorium, to replace an effective, legal ban is not credible.”