Are China's missiles a factor behind Trump's INF Treaty pullout plan?

China missiles A ballistic missile on display at a military parade in Beijing | China's Ministry of National Defense

Amid continuing criticism of his plan to quit a major arms control treaty with Russia, US President Donald Trump on Monday referred to China as being a factor in his strategic calculations.

Trump announced last week the US would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which was signed in 1987, on the grounds that Russia had violated the agreement with the development of new missiles.

The INF treaty bars the US and Russia from developing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges varying from 500km to 5,500km; the treaty covered both non-nuclear and nuclear warheads. On Monday, Trump said the US would increase its nuclear arsenal until other nations “came to their senses”.

"Until people come to their senses—we have more money than anybody else by far; we'll build it up until they come to their senses,” Trump told reporters at the White House. Claiming Russia had not adhered to the spirit of the INF treaty, Trump also targeted China, which is not a signatory to the agreement.

Referring to the US' ability to develop more advanced weapons as being a “threat”, Trump noted, “It's a threat to whoever you want, and it includes China, and it includes Russia and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can't do that. You can't play that game on me.”

Experts have previously referred to China being a hidden factor in Trump's reservations about the INF treaty.

Since its wide-ranging military modernisation began in the early 1980s, China has built a vast arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles. An annual assessment of China's military capabilities to the US Congress in 2018 noted that Beijing currently has around 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles (with range less than 1,000km) and nearly 300 medium-range ballistic missiles (with range between 1,000km to 3,000km).

Analysts note that this massive arsenal of ballistic missiles, coupled with a growing number of land- and sea-launched cruise missiles, provided China the ability to threaten Taiwan as well as target US bases in South Korea, Japan and even as far as the strategic Pacific base of Guam. The threat to airbases would reduce the US military's ability to intervene in the event of a conflict in the Korean peninsula or in Taiwan.

Furthermore, over the past decade, experts have warned of China's development of a new variant of the DF-21 ballistic missile. This DF-21 variant, with a range of less than 2,000km, is specifically designed to target US aircraft carriers and is a land-based weapon.

Supporters of Trump's decision to leave the INF treaty argued that the agreement hindered the US military's ability to deter China. US Navy Admiral Harry Harris said earlier this year the INF treaty was “self-limiting” to the US as it excluded China. Harris noted that nearly 90 per cent of China's current missile arsenal would be in violation of the INF treaty if Beijing were a signatory.

(With PTI inputs)