- Mark Esper, the new US secretary of defence, told reporters over the weekend that he is interested in fielding intermediate-range missiles in Asia “sooner rather than later.”
- Fielding this capability in the Pacific, which the US is looking at in the wake of the INF Treaty’s collapse, would allow the US to confront China in new ways.
- “We want China’s leadership to wake up every morning and think this is not a good day to pick a fight with the United States or its allies,” a missile defence expert told INSIDER, commenting on Esper’s remarks.
- China warned Monday that it “will not just sit idly by and watch our interests being compromised,” nor will it allow another country to “stir up troubles at our doorstep.”
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said Saturday that he wants to put ground-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the Pacific to confront regional threats, a move that is antagonizing rivals China and Russia.
“We would like to deploy the capability sooner rather than later,” he said Saturday, just one day after the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia officially expired. “I would prefer months. I just don’t have the latest state of play on timelines.”
He did not identify where the missiles would be located in Asia, suggesting that the US would develop the weapons and then sort out placement later. He has said it could be “years” before these weapons are fielded in the region.
The 1987 INF Treaty prohibited the development and deployment of conventional and nuclear ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, but the treaty has ended, giving the US new options as it confronts China’s growing might in the Asia-Pacific region.
Following the end of the treaty, Esper said in a statement Friday that the “Department of Defence will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles,” calling these moves a “prudent response to Russia’s actions.” But, the Defence Department is also clearly looking at China. “Eighty per cent plus of their [missile] inventory is intermediate-range systems,” Esper told reporters Saturday. It “shouldn’t surprise [China] that we would want to have a like capability.”
In his previous role as the secretary of the Army, Esper made long-range precision fires a top priority, regularly arguing that the US needs long-range, stand-off weaponry if it is to maintain its competitive advantage in a time of renewed great power competition.
Both Russia and China have expressed opposition to the possibility of US missiles in the Pacific.
“If the deployment of new US systems begins specifically in Asia, then the corresponding steps to balance these actions will be taken by us in the direction of parrying these threats,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned Monday.
“If the US deploys intermediate-range missiles in Asia-Pacific, especially around China, the aim will apparently be offensive. If the US insists on doing so, the international and regional security will inevitably be severely undermined,” China Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.
“China will not just sit idly by and watch our interests being compromised. What’s more, we will not allow any country to stir up troubles at our doorstep. We will take all necessary measures to safeguard national security interests,” she added.
Her rhetoric mimicked Esper’s criticisms of China over the weekend, when he spoke of a “disturbing pattern of aggressive” behaviour and warned that the US will not “stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favour at the expense of others.”
While some observers are concerned US missile deployments may ignite an escalated arms race between great power rivals, Tom Karako, a missile defence expert at CSIS, argues that this is an evolution rather than a radical change in US defensive posturing in the region, an adaptation to Russian and Chinese developments.
“We want China’s leadership to wake up every morning and think this is not a good day to pick a fight with the United States or its allies,” Karako told INSIDER.
Mobile land-based missile systems complicate surveillance and targeting. “The point is not to consolidate and put everything in one spot so it can be targeted but to move things around and make it so that the adversary doesn’t know where these things are at any given time.”
“I would not minimise the potential advantages of this kind of posture,” Karako added.
Should the US pursue this course, China’s response is unlikely to be friendly, experts in China warn. “If the US deploys intermediate-range missiles in Asia, China will certainly carry out countermeasures and augment its own missile forces in response, so as to effectively deter the US,” Li Haidong, a professor in the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University told the Global Times.
For now, the US has not made any moves to deploy missiles to the Pacific; however, the US is looking at testing a handful of new ground-based systems.
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