Some US analysts and officials argue the United States should withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty because it prevents the United States from responding to China’s deployed short- and intermediate-range ground-based missiles. They argue the United States should abandon a bilateral arms control agreement intended to prevent Russia from threatening Western Europe to make it easier for the United States to threaten China.
These are dubious arguments. The US nuclear arsenal is more than 10 times larger than China’s and Chinese military strategists already believe the United States possesses conventional military superiority.
The push for the INF treaty emerged in the late 1970s in response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, a new road-mobile missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers that could carry three nuclear warheads to Western European targets from eastern Soviet Union bases. The missile could reach targets in many other parts of the world, including Asia, but that was not a concern. At one point during the negotiations the United States and NATO were willing to let the Soviets continue to deploy some SS-20s if they moved them far enough east to be out of range of many Western European targets. Japan’s prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, was so angry that US and NATO negotiators were sacrificing his country’s security concerns that he personally pressed President Ronald Reagan to take that option off the table.
As discussions were proceeding, the United States and NATO simultaneously moved forward with plans to deploy hundreds of nuclear-armed, ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles in Western Europe to restore a perceived balance of nuclear forces that Soviet SS-20 deployments had upset. That balance could be achieved by either limiting the number of Soviet missiles with the treaty or increasing the number of new US-NATO missiles. Public opposition to the proposed US-NATO deployments helped tip the scales in favor of negotiations.
One of the reasons Asia was not a concern to US INF negotiators is there was no comparable imbalance between US and Chinese nuclear forces. The United States possessed significantly more then and still does today. China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads (deployed and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
China could deliver 75 to 100 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a maximum of 60 more on its soon to be 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It can deliver 50 to 100 more nuclear warheads to targets in Asia with nuclear-capable intermediate-range missiles. The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 1,920 warheads on its 240 SLBMs. The United States also currently deploys 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles. China does have several hundred nuclear-capable cruise missiles, but US intelligence agencies believe they are assigned conventional missions. Even if they were assigned nuclear missions, the balance of nuclear forces would remain heavily skewed in favor of the United States.
So, scrapping the INF threatens to upset the balance of nuclear forces with Russia in Europe in order to widen an already large US nuclear advantage over China in Asia.
Since that’s an obviously bad trade, US analysts and officials who tie the fate of this decades-old US-Russia nuclear arms control agreement to China may be more worried about balance of conventional forces. If that’s true, the question for President Trump is whether acquiring the freedom to target China with this class of conventionally armed missiles is worth giving Russia the freedom to target both Western Europe and Asia with the same class of nuclear-armed missiles.
Before he makes up his mind, Trump should know that the current conventional military balance between the United States and China does not inspire much confidence among Chinese military strategists. In China’s most recent assessment, US conventional military capabilities in Asia are consistently described as far superior to the capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The only Chinese generals who talk with some enthusiasm about a future military conflict with the United States are the political officers who appear on television and write propaganda pieces to buck up the troops and assuage the general public.
Chinese generals with actual military responsibilities are not at all optimistic about the outcome of a conventional war with the United States. They say they’ll fight if US politicians give them no other option, by supporting independence for Taiwan, for example. But the idea that China is a rising military power preparing to kick the US military out of Asia is a uniquely US perception based more on highly questionable theories of international relations than objective assessments of Chinese military capabilities or intentions.
China has been spending a consistent 2 percent of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) on its military every year since 1988. Because China’s annual GDP has grown significantly over the past several decades, Chinese military spending may be narrowing the conventional military gap to the same degree the growth of China’s economy is narrowing the economic gap. China’s per capita GDP has ballooned from a paltry $283 (in current US dollars) in 1988 to a little more than $9,000 today. That’s an impressive achievement. The per capita GDP of the United States went from $21,483 to $61,690 in the same period.
How much China’s economic growth has allowed its leaders to close the conventional military gap is very difficult to assess. One thing that should be clear, however, is that comparing totals of one class of armaments—ground-based missiles—is meaningless. There are many discrete capabilities that must be considered in assessing the conventional military balance between China and the United States, including the quantity and quality of aircraft, naval vessels, space assets, cyber skills and the education and training of troops. That last category is the one brought up most frequently in personal conversations with Chinese military professionals. Consistent with the traditional Maoist view that people, not munitions, determine the outcome of wars, the gap in the quality of the average soldier is the benchmark Chinese military strategists worry about the most, and Chinese military officers work most diligently to close.
The INF treaty is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia intended to do one thing and one thing only: preserve nuclear stability between the two nations that account for more than 90 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. US concerns about Russian violations of the treaty may be legitimate. But China does not possess any constellation of nuclear weapons that threatens to upset the balance of nuclear forces in Asia, which is very heavily weighted in favor of the United States and will continue to be for the indefinite future, despite China’s nuclear weapons modernization program.
Withdrawing from the INF treaty and forgoing the preservation of nuclear stability with Russia because of concerns about improvements in China’s conventional military capabilities is unwarranted, especially since Chinese military professionals believe they still lag far behind.