May 05, 2019 by Inoka Perera
Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty marks increased tensions of an arms race in South Asia, potentially escalating rivalries between India and China leading to the possible proliferation of the already growing nuclear skirmishes between the two regional powers; India and Pakistan. Geostrategically positioned U.S. (United States) allies around the region such as Sri Lanka will also feel threatened due to a subsequent militarisation in the Indian Ocean.
The INF treaty was signed in 1987 forbidding both the U.S. and Russia from possessing, producing or test-flying ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The treaty has been influential in facilitating a legal framework for maintaining stability and reducing tensions in Europe during the cold war. However, at present, even in the absence of military warfare, the U.S. and Russia continue to develop military arsenals and strengthen their deterrence capabilities against each other. With the most significant military expenditure in 2018 amounting to $649 billion and over 4000 nuclear warheads in its security forces by 2019, Trump has deployed a number of nuclear modernization programs such as the ‘program of record’ which will cost over $1.2 trillion for the period 2017–46, all of which raise significant security implications for potential nuclear confrontations. Besides, the development of high-tech weaponisation strategies such as controversial new nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, known as the LRSO (Long-Range Standoff missile), for deployment from 2030 has further produced uncertainties of an arms race between the cold war rivalries.
On the other hand, Russia has in retaliation maintained and culminated both in number and in the size of its military resources in the new millennium. As of early 2019, the estimated stockpile of nuclear warheads that Russia owns is approximately 4,490 of which over 1,600 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles. Both the U.S. and Russia together hold a share of 93% of the world’s nuclear warheads. Therefore, the surge in missile resources exacerbates the high risk of a nuclear war considering that no one country is committing to a ‘no first use policy.’ What puts the international system at an even more terrifying scenario is an era without the INF treaty, widening possibilities for the two superpowers to expand their defence capacities to unknown boundaries.
Withdrawing from the INF treaty implies that both countries are free to develop and deploy more military arsenals. Trump’s decision for withdrawal was mainly led by Russia’s violation of the treaty in addition to the fact that neither of the significant nuclear powers such as China or North Korea is signatories of the treaty, leaving the U.S. unable to procure its deterrence capabilities against its potential threats. Arguably, these justifications entail U.S.’s concerns on the Chinese military involvement in the indo-pacific. China’s warheads remain well below 300, yet with its militarisation of the South China Sea, massive rocket inventory and a likely threat to the U.S. naval ships, the U.S. may now find it an opportune time to develop and station ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missiles across the Asia–Pacific leading China to take retaliatory measures by expanding its arsenals and nuclear capabilities to protect its vital security interests as deterrence strategies.
China’s subsequent proliferation of military systems will, in turn, constrain the military posture of India. India will thus re-adopt its military doctrine and create a spill-over effect with Pakistan adopting similar arms proliferation agendas. With tensions across the Line of control after the ‘Pulwama’ attacks, these military buildups will create pressures for a possible nuclear war in a militarized south Asia. Due to this adversarial military posturing of regional powers, small economies such as Sri Lanka will not only be trapped between regional nuclear powers but being a U.S. ally, its security and territorial integrity will be challenged by the re-introduction of U.S. nuclear weapons in the region.
Without legal constraints from the INF treaty, the U.S. will engage in utilizing its allies in South Asia, especially Sri Lanka given its geostrategic positioning, to develop and expand cruise missiles and nuclear arms to counter Chinese pressures. Taken into consideration the U.S.’s military presence in South Asia so far, the escalation of conventionally-armed missiles in South Asia is sure to trigger new uncertainties that will increase the risk of a rapid escalation in a future military conflict.