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US-Russia suspension of nuke treaty worries Japan; China wants to keep midrange missiles

TOKYO/BEIJING -- The recent decision by the United States to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, and a corresponding move by Russia, are raising security concerns in East Asia, where Japan, a long-time ally of the U.S., faces off against China and North Korea.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters that although Tokyo understands Washington's concerns about Russia's alleged violation of the INF pact, "a situation in which the treaty has to end is not desirable for the world." Kono added at the Feb. 1 press conference in Tokyo that Japan would like to contribute to the formation of a disarmament framework "through steady exchanges with not only the U.S. and Russia but also other relevant countries including China."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Feb. 2 that his country suspended the implementation of obligations under the INF treaty and officially notified Moscow of the move. Pompeo said the treaty will terminate if Russia does not return in six months to "full and verifiable compliance with the treaty" by eliminating missiles Washington and NATO countries see as violating the agreement.

The 1987 pact between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor nation, eliminated all missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and has been seen as a symbol of nuclear disarmament efforts by the two major powers. The U.S. thinks that the 9M729 land-based cruise missile developed and deployed by Russia violates the accord. Russia, however, denies the allegation. In response to Pompeo's announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow is suspending treaty obligations as well.

For Japan, which depends substantially on the U.S. for its national security, Washington's withdrawal from the treaty is not something it can criticize directly. As North Korea refuses to denuclearize and China continues its military expansion, Japan has no choice but to rely on the strengthening of nuclear deterrent measures pursued by Washington.

Meanwhile, if the relationship between the U.S. and Russia deteriorates further, territorial and peace treaty negotiations between Japan and Russia "can be adversely affected," says an individual close to the Japanese government.

A senior Foreign Ministry official says that Japan "has to depend on the U.S. nuclear deterrence, but going against disarmament is a problem." Japanese officials hope for the creation of a "new framework" of nuclear disarmament pursued by the U.S., Russia and China -- an idea U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned in a tweet in early December last year. But at this point, there are no prospects that Beijing will take part in such an arrangement.

--- China against new missile treaty

The U.S. withdrawal from the INF may trigger new conflicts between Washington and Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang issued a statement against the American move. "China is opposed to the U.S. withdrawal and urges the U.S. and Russia to properly resolve differences through constructive dialogue," he said.

For China, missiles are indispensable weapons to counter the United States. The country is on guard against potential American moves such as expanding the INF treaty to include other nations, or increasing military pressure on China by developing new types of missiles. "China opposes the multilateralization of this (INF) treaty. What is imperative at the moment is to uphold and implement the existing treaty instead of creating a new one," Geng said in the Feb. 2 statement.

About 90 percent of China's missiles are said to have intermediate ranges as the country is not party to the INF treaty. Washington cites not only Russia but also China as a factor behind its decision to withdraw from the pact, but China has dismissed such an argument as a "mistake," arguing that the country's security policy is defensive and does not pose any threat to other countries.

China's missile forces are a pillar of its national security strategy aimed at removing the influence of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region. With the U.S. maintaining the military upper hand, China places importance on a variety of cruise and ballistic missiles capable of hitting American aircraft carriers or military bases in Guam in the western Pacific and Japan. The weapons are a means to prevent American forces from intervening in issues related to Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province, or the South China Sea, which Beijing regards as being within its sphere of influence.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) described in its latest China Military Power report released on Jan. 15 that the Taiwan issue is the "primary driver for China's military modernization." The intelligence gathering and analysis arm of the U.S. Defense Department also pointed out in the report that China is promoting the development and deployment of new types of missiles including those designed to attack enemy aircraft carriers, with the U.S. in mind.

On Jan. 23, China Central Television aired footage deemed as showing the test launch of the latest DF26 intermediate-range missile. The missile, with a maximum range of at least 4,000 kilometers, can hit U.S. bases in Guam from the Chinese mainland and is thus called a "Guam killer." China's English-language newspaper Global Times quoted an expert as stating that the DF26 missile can hit moving aircraft carriers with precision using a special warhead. The reports are believed to be intended to restrain the U.S. by emphasizing the performance of the latest weapon.

(Japanese original by Muneyoshi Mitsuta, Political News Department, and Keisuke Kawazu, Beijing Bureau)

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