US INF Treaty Withdrawal and China

Mirziyoyev in France; U.S.-ROK exercises canceled; Japan-China thaw.

The Big One.

China Eyes the US Withdrawal From the INF Treaty.

The Trump administration has made its intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the last surviving Cold War-era arms control agreement, clear. “We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out,” President Donald J. Trump said this weekend, adding that the U.S. would develop new weapons. The Treaty prohibited both the United States and the Soviet Union—now Russia—from deploying, possessing, or testing ground-launched cruise of ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km. Since 2014, the United States has alleged that Russia has developed, and more recently, deployed a system known as the 9M729 that violates the Treaty-proscribed ranges.

The decision has driven American Asia hands, Europe hands, and arms control analysts into a frenzied debate about the merits. In the Asia analyst community, INF withdrawal has long been favored as a means by which to balance China. According to former Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris, 95 percent of China’s missile inventory is in the INF-proscribed range, which has allowed Beijing to operationalize a robust anti-access/area denial capability in East Asia. The United States has been able to compete using sea- and air-based platforms, which, while generally costlier than land-based deployments, are not limited by INF.

There are some problems that spring to mind with the decision to frame INF withdrawal around concerns about China.

First, the fundamental case to be made is that the costs to U.S. and allied security in Europe of INF withdrawal will be outmatched by the deterrence benefits in East Asia against China. I remain unconvinced that this is the case. Second, while Russia will be free to continue to deploy the system it has already developed to violate INF, the United States simply does not possess any existing systems that it could deploy. This means that the prospect of deploying a new conventional, ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) in Asia may take years. Third—and most significantly—allied geography in East Asia and political realities will make GLCM deployments to deter China challenging. Proponents of the idea have cited basing locations including Okinawa, the Philippines, and Australia. Unless the nature of the China threat changes so considerably that domestic politics in the latter two transforms considerably, it’s almost unimaginable that either would be lining up to host U.S. missiles that would turn them into targets. With Okinawa—and other parts of Japan—it’s easy to imagine just how much more toxic local politics regarding the U.S. military presence could get.

China, in the meantime, hasn’t reckoned with the U.S. debate about its own missile forces. The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. decision to leave the Treaty, noting on Monday:

The US side should prudently handle the issues related to the treaty. It is even more wrong to make an issue out of China on withdrawing from the treaty. We hope that the US side can shoulder its responsibility and think twice before its pullout.

If the above discussion interests you, watch out for a new podcast soon with The Diplomat’s Robert Farley on the benefits and costs of INF withdrawal for the United States in Asia.

Northeast Asia. 

There’s a serious bout of a thaw underway between Japan and China. Of course, this isn’t particularly new; Tokyo has been carefully working to repair its bilateral relationship with Beijing as the United States has grown ever more unpredictable. The move doesn’t signal a Japanese embrace of China; rather, it’s an acknowledgement that it is better at the current moment for Tokyo to find areas of common interest with China and work to reduce bilateral tensions. This is particularly true as the U.S.-China relationship reaches a low we haven’t seen in some time.

To underline the thaw, we have two recent data points. First, the defense chiefs of both countries met for the first time in three years recently and have resolved to start regular exchanges. This will include regular fleet visits between warships of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)—a serious step that takes cooperation back to an activity that we haven’t seen since 2011. All this bodes well for the implementation of the recently finalized East China Sea crisis management mechanism between the two sides, which took effect this summer.

For now, Tokyo is making a serious effort to repair its strategic and economic relationship with Beijing. The real proof will come with an expected leaders-level summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in China. The two leaders recently had a cordial encounter in Vladivostok, Russia, on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum. For China, the outreach by Japan is well in its own interests. Beijing needs all the external support it can find amid the ongoing trade war with the United States. While Tokyo has staked out its clear positions in support of a high-standards, rule-based, multilateral trading architecture in Asia—best captured by the new Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership—Beijing sees Japan as a more than willing economic partner.

Abe will be in China from October 25 to 27.

Bottom Line: There’s a serious strategic thaw underway with Japan and China that is expected to deepen with a summit between Xi and Abe.

Bonus: Shannon Tiezzi, The Diplomat’s editor-in-chief and resident China hand, joined me for a discussion on Taiwan’s navigation of U.S.-China tensions on the Asia Geopolitics podcast. You can listen here.

South Asia.

On October 20, Afghans across the country went to the polls to vote in delayed parliamentary elections, just shortly after a devastating Taliban attack killed the police chief and intelligence of Kandahar, and even injured a U.S. brigadier general. The conduct of the polling—at least in Kabul—did not offer reason for confidence in the robustness of Afghan democracy, even though the turnout by ordinary voters—especially at locations in the city that had recently been targeted by Taliban and Islamic State militants—gave cause for hope. Franz J. Marty was on location in Kabul for The Diplomat in Afghanistan. As Marty notes, the Taliban did manage to make a dent in the conduct of the elections with their attacks on the day of the voting:

The Taliban claimed to have conducted an array of attacks across Afghanistan on October 20 (a summary statement indicated 407 alleged attacks), blocking roads and allegedly preventing the elections in countless districts, if not nearly whole provinces. While such Taliban propaganda is usually vastly exaggerated and sometimes even made up, some of the incidents – as well as the fact that they severely hampered the elections – have been confirmed.

Meanwhile, technical polling problems, including reports of closed polling sites and sites opening late, leave the result open to allegations of fraud and tampering. Additionally, due to the security situation across the country, various polling sites were simply unable to operate. (This included Kandahar, and also Ghazni, which saw a dramatic takeover attempt by the Taliban in August and, earlier in the summer, had grown mired in separate constituency delimitation issues.)

In case you missed it, Michelle Tolson looked at the role that female candidates played in this year’s parliamentary elections. Female political participation is up considerably in Afghanistan.

Bottom Line:

In Case You Missed It: A few issues ago, I enthusiastically discussed the Maldives’ remarkable election outcome. That result, sadly, has come under assault by the outgoing authoritarian-leaning president, who asked the apex court in the country to annul the result. The latest is that the court has rejected Yameen’s request, but there remain several weeks until the scheduled leadership transition date of November 17.

Southeast Asia.

After months of talk and progress (depending on who you ask) on a draft South China Sea Code of Conduct, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China kicked off the first component of their first-ever maritime exercise. As The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran reported, “The engagement spotlighted an activity that holds wider significance within Beijing’s ongoing efforts at strengthening ties with Southeast Asian states, including in the security realm.” The ASEAN-China expansion into maritime military exchanges underlines the grouping’s willingness to hew equally close to both Beijing and Washington, avoiding the pressures—at least temporarily—of tilting either way. There is also the significant matter of the ten member states between themselves having vastly differing preferences on the South China Sea issue. Four—Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines—are claimant states, but only one among them—Vietnam—is particularly vocal about the issue. Separately, Cambodia, more so than any other ASEAN member, is particularly beholden to Beijing. We’re set to see more “firsts” in China’s interactions with ASEAN member states in the security realm too. Beijing will hold its first-ever maritime field training exercises with both Thailand and Malaysia soon.

Bottom Line: China’s maritime exercise with ASEAN is meant to underline its growing engagement with the grouping—all as the two parties continue to push ahead with a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Central Asia.

I’ve written about Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev quite a bit in recent issues of this newsletter, mostly because he continues to draw headlines for his ongoing reform project. This week, he gets yet another moment in the limelight after his recent trip to France.


The Diplomat’s Umida Hashimova breaks down the outcomes of his trip, which was mainly about seeking new export markets and inbound investments. As Hashimova sums up, “Mirziyoyev’s trip to France was akin to the CEO of a company advertising business opportunities to attract investors.” The Uzbek president met with the heads of several French multinational companies that may have interests in Tashkent. The French leg of Mirziyoyev’s trip paid off, with deals toward future investments totaling some 5 billion euros coming together. One particular deal will see French nuclear materials firm Orano enter the Uzbek uranium mining space. (Uzbekistan has massive proven reserves of uranium.) The French visit mostly accomplished what the Uzbek president was looking for. He’ll be back in Europe in a few months with a stop in Germany, by far Uzbekistan’s most important European relationship.

Bottom Line: Uzbekistan’s reformer president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, returned from a visit to France that cinched several billion euros in investments.

Watch This Space: We’ve seen renewed murmurs of growing Indian interest in a new potential overseas base on Tajik soil. These rumors ebb and flow, of course, but this time might be different given shifting perspectives in India on what Afghanistan may look like the coming years.

Asian Defense. 

It was expected and it happened: the United States and South Korea agreed to call off the December 2018 Vigilant Ace aerial military exercises to facilitate the ongoing diplomatic process with North Korea. The U.S. Defense Department said as much, noting that the reason was “to give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue,” according to a statement released by Pentagon spokesperson Dana White. That’s a total of six U.S.-South Korea military drills canceled this year—a great tally for Kim Jong Un. (If you’re counting: Freedom Guardian, Ulchi, Taeguk, two Korea Marine Exchange Program exercises, and now Vigilant Ace.)

If the upcoming summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald J. Trump takes place late enough in 2018 or early in 2019, Kim may ask Trump to call off the flagship Foal Eagle/Key Resolve exercises in the springtime—the exercises that North Korea insists every year are a precursor to an invasion. In the meantime, the alliance isn’t in particularly good shape when it comes to the Special Measures Agreement negotiations (the negotiations over burden-sharing). As South Korea’s Yonhap News reported recently, “The allies wrapped up their four-day negotiation session without bridging the gaps on a set of sticking points such as the exact cost Seoul is set to shoulder for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops in the South.” Trump has long banged the drum the costs of overseas troop basing and that certainly appears to be behind these negotiations.

Bottom Line: U.S.-South Korea military readiness continues to atrophy amid additional canceled exercises to facilitate diplomacy with North Korea.

The Good News: The inter-Korean effort to implement the September 19 Comprehensive Military Agreement with United Nations Command at the Joint Security Area continues apace. The two sides dismantled landmines at the JSA one day ahead of schedule and are now working to demilitarize the area.

Bonus: I discuss the destabilizing potential effects of U.S. interest in ‘left-of-launch’ means to disable North Korean missiles. We really don’t want to give Kim Jong Un any reason to pursue nuclear predelegation in a crisis.


If any readers hold the view that baijiu—China’s most popular indigenous liquor—is unfairly maligned, they may find this story interesting:

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