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US defense secretary wants to deploy new missiles in Asia

Then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dec. 7, 2017. (U.S. Army/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says Washington wants to deploy new ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia soon.

Esper’s remarks came a day after the United States and Russia formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a 31-year-old landmark nuclear accord between Washington and Moscow.

No longer bound by the treaty, Esper said he would “like” to “deploy a capability sooner rather than later” in Asia.

Esper, speaking in Australia on August 3, did not specify where the United States intended to deploy these new weapons.

“I would prefer months…but these things tend to take longer than you expect,” he told reporters.

The INF banned the Soviet Union and United States from developing, producing, or deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers after it was ratified by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988.

Both the United States and NATO have accused Russia of violating the pact by deploying the 9M729 missile, know to NATO as the SSC-8. Moscow says the 9M729’s range is under 500 kilometers and accuses the United States of breaking the deal.

Critics have warned that the pullout from the INF could lead to a new arms race between the United States and Russia. It is also likely to further complicate ties with China.

Trump on August 2 told reporters he would like to establish a new accord with Russia that would reduce all nuclear forces, and possibly with China involved as well.

“If we could get a pact where they reduce and we reduce nuclear, that would be a good thing for the world. I do believe that will happen,” Trump told reporters, adding that “China was very, very excited about talking about it and so was Russia.”

But Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, on August 2 said Beijing regretted the scrapping of the INF treaty but that he did not see Beijing acting on Trump’s call.

China’s Xinhua news agency on July 30 quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying, “China will in no way agree to making the INF Treaty multilateral,” while hitting out at Washington for its withdrawal from the treaty.

U.S. officials have said that nearly all of China’s ballistic and cruise missiles would have violated the INF.

“Since the strategic environment has changed rapidly since the end of the Cold War, we need to find ways to use arms control to address the rise of China’s nuclear arsenal, the increase of Russia’s nonstrategic weapons stockpiles, and the emergence of new technologies like hypersonic weapons,” said Congressman Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Tensions are high between Washington and Beijing over, among other issues, a trade war that has seen both sides set sanctions against the other’s products, with more sanctions threatened.

Meanwhile, NATO said a request by Moscow to declare a moratorium on the deployment of short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe was not credible because Russia has already deployed such weapons.

“This is not a credible offer because Russia has deployed missiles for years. There is zero credibility in offering a moratorium on missiles they are already deploying,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels.

“There are no new U.S. missiles, no new NATO missiles in Europe, but there are more and more new Russian missiles,” Stoltenberg added

However, he said NATO “does not want a new arms race” and confirmed there were no plans for the Western alliance to deploy land-based nuclear missiles of its own in Europe.

The INF and the successor to the Cold War-era START agreement to reduce strategic nuclear missile launchers, New START, a U.S.-Russia accord that entered into force in 2011, are two of the bedrocks of arms control between the world’s two leading nuclear-armed states.

New START will lapse in early 2021 unless the U.S. and Russian presidents decide to extend it.