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Good Riddance to the INF Treaty

Washington Shouldn’t Tie Its Own Hands in Asia

Chinese ballistic missiles at a military parade in Beijing, September 2015 Andy Wong / REUTERS

In early August, the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a landmark 1987 arms control accord with Russia. Just two weeks later, on a small island off the Californian coast, the Pentagon tested a land-based missile once banned under the agreement. The demise of the INF Treaty is now official, on paper as on the ground.

The treaty’s collapse was a long time coming. An agreement cannot work if only one party honors it, and the INF Treaty’s sole cosignatory, Moscow, had been flouting its rules for years. During his presidency, Barack Obama considered withdrawing from the INF for precisely the same reason that helped drive President Donald Trump’s decision. Still, to many observers, the decision to ditch the treaty is misguided and dangerous. The Trump administration, they argue, is dismantling guardrails that were erected to keep tensions from escalating into a destabilizing arms race. At a time when several elements of the global arms control architecture are fraying, this latest casualty could only make matters worse.

But that line of criticism misses the point. If unilateral U.S. adherence to the treaty was futile in the face of repeated Russian transgressions, it had become outright dangerous in the face of a much more potent adversary—China. During the INF Treaty’s 32-year lifespan, China developed the world’s foremost conventional missile force, brimming with the very weapons that the treaty prohibited the United States from developing: ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Today, China uses that missile arsenal to threaten the United States and its allies and partners throughout East Asia. Exiting the INF Treaty is no panacea, but it opens much-needed possibilities for Washington to reset the military balance with Beijing in its favor. Washington should use this opportunity to develop and deploy its own missiles to counter the Chinese threat—or risk being steamrolled in a future confrontation.

CHINA PULLS AHEAD

The INF Treaty, with its narrow focus on

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