Why is the US pulling out of the intermediate-range nuclear treaty?

“What going smaller does is to make using nuclear weapons more thinkable.”

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An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg air base, California, US, August 2017.

Proletarian writers

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The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) binds the United States and Russia (at time of signing, the USSR) to eliminate all nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with ranges of 500-1,000km (considered short range) and 1,000–5,000km (considered intermediate range).

It was signed in 1987, and 2,692 missiles were eliminated under its terms in the first four years.

But on 20 October 2018 the United States declared it was withdrawing from the treaty, citing alleged Russian non-compliance.

Have the Russians been non-compliant?

In fact, this question is a diversion from the real issue, because the USA’s real target here is China. As the old peasant saying goes: ‘I hit the sack, but the blow is intended for the ass.’ Beijing’s growing technological and military capabilities now include sophisticated ground-based missiles, 90 percent of which would be outlawed if China was a party to the treaty.

This considerably strengthens China’s security and increasingly acts as an effective check on US aggression in the Pacific – notably the South China Sea, through which a large amount of international and particularly Chinese freight trade passes, and over which the US harbours hegemonic designs.

Hence the United States feels it needs the ‘freedom’ to boost its own missile forces in the region. (Chinese missile build-up strained US-Russia arms pact by Gregory Hellman, Politico, 23 October 2018)

The United States has been trying to bring China into the treaty whilst constantly developing new weapons to threaten the country. For its part, China has maintained a principled position of calling for the “complete prohibition and thorough destruction” of nuclear weapons ever since its own first test in 1964.

However, it equally insists that the primary responsibility in nuclear disarmament rests with those who have by far the greatest arsenals, against which China’s is modest and therefore clearly defensive in character.

Retired US navy admiral Harry Harris, former head of Asia Pacific Command and current ambassador to south Korea, testified before the House armed services committee earlier this year, stating: “We’re hamstrung in a number of ways, one of which is some of our treaties are self-limiting in my opinion … and we have no missiles that can meet [China’s] capability from the ground.” (Ibid)

US officials have been claiming for years that the United States was being put at a disadvantage by China’s development of increasingly sophisticated land-based missiles that the Pentagon couldn’t match owing to the US treaty with Russia. (Trump’s missile treaty pull-out could escalate tension with China by Phil Stewart, Reuters, 23 October 2018)

So under the pretext of alleged Russian violations of the treaty, the US has finally decided to develop its own short and intermediate range missiles as a counter to China. Indeed, US President Donald Trump has said as much, in deciding on a course of action that his predecessor Barack Obama also contemplated:

“If Russia is doing it (developing these missiles) and China is doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,” President Trump has said. (Quoted in Trump’s withdrawal from missile treaty could escalate US tensions with China, experts warn by Saman Javed, The Independent, 23 October 2018)

What will the US do once it withdraws from its treaty obligations?

Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute, has said a treaty pull-out could pave the way for the US to field easier-to-hide, road-mobile conventional missiles in places like Guam and Japan. (Ibid)

That would make it harder for China to consider a conventional first strike against US ships and bases in the region. It could also push Beijing into a costly arms race, forcing China to spend more on missile defences.

And recently, retired US Lt Gen Ben Hodges, former commanding general of US forces in Europe, has echoed former White House chief strategist and key Trump associate Steve Bannon in saying that the US would be at war with China within 15 years thanks to a “tense relationship and increasing competition” between the world’s two greatest economies. (Is a US-China war in Asia inevitable? by James Reinl, Al Jazeera, 30 October 2018)

War preparations accelerating

Given Washington’s bellicose rhetoric and actions towards both Russia and China, all three countries are now preparing for the possibility of war.
Retired lieutenant general Ben Hodges told the Warsaw Security Forum in October: “The United States needs a very strong European pillar. I think in 15 years  – it’s not inevitable –  but it is a very strong likelihood that we will be at war with China.” (Quoted in Threat of war by Gerard du Cann, The Sun, 25 October 2018)

Chinese president Xi Jinping, meeting troops and generals on a tour of China’s southern Guangzhou province a few days later, told his audience: “It’s necessary to strengthen the mission … and concentrate preparations for fighting a war.” (China’s military ordered to ‘concentrate preparations for fighting a war’ as tensions with west grow by Jamie Seidel, The Sun, 29 October 2018)

Andrey Belousov, deputy director at the Russian foreign ministry’s department of non-proliferation and arms control, responded to the US’s threats by stating: “At a recent meeting, the US stated that Russia is preparing for war. Yes, Russia is preparing for war, I can confirm it.”

The official went on to explain to Russia’s RT news outlet that his government pinned the blame for the soaring tensions squarely on the US – for having pulled out of the INF treaty and for declaring a revised nuclear doctrine “that lowers the threshold for nuclear weapons use”. Washington’s desire to beef up its nuclear arsenal was reinforcing the interpretation that these moves are hostile, he said.

Contrasting the US’s aggressive stance with Russia’s need to mount defence preparations, he pointed out: “Linguistically, this difference is in just one word, both in Russian and in English; Russia is preparing for war, and the US is preparing a war.” (US-China war looming? Russia bracing for conflict? Week of warmongering predictions by top officials, RT, 30 October 2018)

China the main target

China’s policy of ‘Made in China 2025’ was first presented by a Chinese think tank in 2013 and adopted as government policy in 2015 as part of an effort to avoid falling into the middle-income trap as many developing countries have done.

To achieve this aim, China is hoping to replace most of the foreign technology it imports with locally innovated, designed and made components. However this will in effect displace American producers as well as making China the scientific and technological capital of the world.

Former president Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton pushed a ‘pivot to Asia’ policy that was essentially aimed at refocussing US attention and resources away from the ‘war on terror’ (a euphemism for a series of disastrous and genocidal campaigns that have set the middle east on fire and unleashed a succession of jihadist Frankenstein monsters) and towards heightened confrontation with the People’s Republic of China, with the aim of halting its rise and, if possible, overturning the Chinese revolution.

The present Trump administration essentially seeks to pursue this policy on steroids. For example, Vice president Mike Pence has demanded that China cease its efforts to control what he called the “commanding heights of the 21st-century economy”, including “robotics, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence”, making it clear that under Trump’s leadership, the United States is “defending our interests with renewed American strength”.

“We’re modernising our nuclear arsenal,” Pence declared. “We’re fielding and developing new cutting-edge fighters and bombers. We’re building a new generation of aircraft carriers and warships. We’re investing as never before in our armed forces.” (Remarks by Vice President Pence on the administration’s policy toward China, speech given to the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, 4 October 2018)

The US has understood correctly that China’s Made in China 2025 programme could, to a significant degree, cut it out of the global supply chain of high-tech goods. Just as importantly, by breaking the US monopoly on certain core technologies, the programme could significantly impair the present US ability to blackmail China and inflict real damage on its economy – as, for example, with the recent US sanctioning of the Chinese telecoms company ZTE, which had defied US sanctions on Iran and the DPRK.

The United States’ high-tech industry essentially makes its profits from copyright and intellectual property. Apple, for instance (the first company to be valued at $1tn), doesn’t actually build any of its products itself. Instead, it ships its intellectual property to China, which builds and manufactures the commodities before sending them back to the United States, which then sells the finished goods.

In the conclusion of the US trade office investigation into Chinese trade practices, which was the signal for President Trump’s initial announcement of punitive tariffs on Chinese goods in March 2018, the Made in China policy was mentioned more than 100 times. (Made in China policy at centre of tariff war with US by Lily Kuo, The Guardian, 4 April 2018)

US developing ‘smaller’ and more ‘tactical’ nukes

In 2016 the United States conducted tests of so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear missiles, known as B61 bombs, which Russia rightly called “irresponsible” and “provocative”. (Russia slams US test of B61-12 atomic bomb as ‘provocative’, Press TV, 13 July 2015)

The increasing development of ‘tactical’ nukes is another factor pushing the US to withdraw from the INF treaty. Modelled on the B61, the B61-12 is a newer nuke at a lower yield – roughly 2 percent of the blast of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

According to retired general James E Cartwright, formerly vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has an intimate knowledge of the US’s nuclear forces, a smaller and more precise nuclear weapon is more ‘useable’. “What going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable,” he told the New York Times back in 2016, while Obama was still in the White House. (As US modernises nuclear weapons, ‘smaller’ leaves some uneasy by William J Broad and David E Sanger, 11 January 2016)

William J Perry, former secretary of state for defence, in an article in 2015, titled ‘Mr President, kill the new cruise missile’, argued that the ‘limited’ nature of such nukes could persuade a president to engage in what might be perceived (wrongly in the view of the author) as a “limited nuclear war”. (Washington Post, 15 October 2015)

What’s more, because the missile comes in the variety of nuclear and non-nuclear forms, a nation under attack may miscalculate and retaliate with nuclear weapons.

In 2013 Phillip Hammond (then British defence secretary) actually explained this issue well:

“A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension.”

The Russian response to this has been a stark one, with President Vladimir Putin using biblical imagery while pointing out that Russia will never strike first:

“Only when we become convinced that there is an incoming attack on the territory of Russia, and that happens within seconds, only after that we would launch a retaliatory strike.

“In the event of a nuclear war the aggressor should know that retaliation is inevitable, and he will be destroyed. We would be victims of an aggression and would get to go to heaven as martyrs. They will simply drop dead. They won’t even have time to repent.” (In a fiery warning to rivals, Putin says any country that nukes Russia will ‘drop dead’ by Ryan Pickrell, Business Insider UK, 18 October 2018)

Only the militant, organised international working class and its allies can halt and reverse imperialism’s inexorable march towards global conflagration and reorient humanity’s incredible productive capacity away from the profits of war towards the resolution of such pressing issues as world hunger, sustainable development and climate change, which, like nuclear weapons, threaten our very survival.

To do this requires the building of socialism.