The US hopes to deploy new mid-range missiles in Asia in the near future, Washington's defence secretary Mark Esper has said, as China and Russia blamed his country for the collapse of a major Cold War-era arms control pact.
Washington formally withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) last Friday after accusing Russia of flagrantly breaching its terms and complaining that China’s growing missile arsenal was not covered by the deal.
At the start of a week-long tour of Asia-Pacific states Mr Esper was asked if the Pentagon would station mid-range conventional rockets in the region amid US concerns over China’s intentions in the area.
“Yes I would like to...We would like to deploy a capability sooner rather than later,” Mr Esper said. “I would prefer months...But these things tend to take longer than you expect.”
The Pentagon says the 1988 INF treaty has been rendered obsolete by Moscow’s alleged deployment of a new generation of mid-range rockets and the need to respond to Beijing’s missile capability.
Mr Esper said on Saturday that US plans to base missiles in Asia “should be no surprise because we have been talking about that for some time now”.
“And I want to say that 80 per cent of [China’s] inventory is INF range systems. So that should not surprise that we would want to have a like capability.
“I don’t see an arms race happening, I do see us taking pro-active measures to develop a capability that we need for both the European theatre and certainly this theatre.”
Speaking in Sydney on Sunday, Mr Esper said the US would counter Chinese moves in the wider region, ramping up Washington’s rhetoric amid a rumbling trade war with Beijing.
“We firmly believe no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific, and we are working alongside our allies and partners to address the region’s pressing security needs. We also stand firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behaviour, destabilising behaviour from China.”
New arms control deal
US president Donald Trump said on Friday that he hoped to clinch a new arms control deal with both Russia and China.
“And I will tell you China was very, very excited about talking about it and so was Russia. So I think we’ll have a deal at some point.”
China's ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, swiftly played down prospects for such a deal, however.
"You know, the United States is saying China should be a party in this disarmament agreement, but I think everybody knows that China is not at the same level with the United States and the Russian Federation."
Nato and its member states joined the US in blaming Russia for killing the INF pact, but the alliance's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg insisted: "We will not mirror what Russia does, we do not want a new arms race, and we have no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. "
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry warned: “A serious mistake has been made in Washington...This will lead to the actual dismantling of the existing arms control system.”