In announcing his decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, President Trump cited Russia’s repeated violations and the fact that the treaty does not bind China, which is engaged in the world’s most ambitious ballistic missile development program. But Trump’s withdrawal may also be designed for another purpose. It sends a subtle but unmistakable message to North Korea: If you refuse to denuclearize, we can now surround your country with short- and medium-range missiles that will allow us to strike your regime without warning.
At the moment, the Trump administration appears to be making little progress in nuclear talks with Pyongyang. The threat of deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia could change the dynamics of those negotiations. Recall that in 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced plans to deploy hundreds of U.S. intermediate-range Pershing II missiles in Western Europe in response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20 nuclear missiles. The U.S. deployment sparked mass protests throughout Europe, but it also put enormous pressure on Moscow — and in so doing laid the groundwork for a series of arms control breakthroughs, including the INF Treaty.
By withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Trump can now put similar pressure on Pyongyang. The treaty barred both conventional and nuclear land-based missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. Freed from the treaty’s constraints, the United States can now deploy hundreds of conventional short- and medium-range missiles to bases in Asia, including in Guam (2,100 miles from North Korea) and Japan (650 miles). There would no longer be a need to send U.S. aircraft carriers on temporary deployments to waters off the Korean Peninsula as a sign of military strength. The deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the region would put North Korea permanently in our crosshairs.
Pyongyang certainly does not want these U.S. missiles on its doorstep. Neither does Beijing, which knows such a deployment would restore U.S. military supremacy in the Pacific. According to Adm. Harry Harris, former commander of U.S. Pacific Command, China possesses the “largest and most diverse missile force in the world” — and 95 percent of its missiles “would violate the INF [Treaty] if China was a signatory.” The fact that Beijing has such missiles, while the United States does not, puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage in any conflict with Beijing. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Dan Blumenthal pointed out in The Washington Post, our only possible response would be to strike China with intercontinental ballistic missiles — an unacceptable escalation. By contrast, the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty allows deployment of conventional mobile ground-based missiles in Guam and Japan, improving our ability to deter Chinese aggression.
Trump can deploy Tomahawk cruise missiles on ground launchers to the Pacific almost immediately after withdrawal from the treaty. Withdrawal would also pave the way for U.S. development and deployment of new missiles banned by the treaty, as well as new hypersonic weapons — which travel five times faster than the speed of sound — to compete with China’s massive investment in these capabilities. This would be a massive strategic setback to both China and North Korea.
So by withdrawing from the INF Treaty, and clearing the way for such deployments, Trump has given the United States a massive new bargaining chip. North Korea now has a new incentive to denuclearize, and China has a new strategic interest pressuring them to do so.
It still may not work. But if those negotiations fail, Trump’s INF Treaty withdrawal has given the United States a fallback option that will allow Washington to more effectively deter both Beijing and Pyongyang — and reassert American military primacy in the region.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.