New Delhi: In addition to the trade war, China faces the spectre of a missile race with the United States which could prove crippling. Having levied a ten percent tariff on some three hundred billion dollars’ worth of Chinese exports, Washington might take advantage of the scrapped Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Moscow to make China-specific missiles and base them in the Asia Pacific spooking Beijing further.

Since the US-Soviet INF treaty came into effect in 1987 proscribing intermediate range conventional and nuclear missiles, China has been its biggest beneficiary. Not covered by the treaty unlike most of Europe, it felt free to pursue the build-up of intermediate range missiles which target Taiwan, Japan and India for the most part.

While the INF treaty proscribed missiles of ranges from five hundred to five thousand and five hundred kilometres, China has a narrower definition of intermediate range missiles and includes higher and shorter ranges in other subgroups. Apart from other benefits, it helps in fudging their numbers. Chinese and Western estimates of the number of Chinese intermediate range missiles widely vary, with Western estimates putting it in thousands, while the Chinese say they are in the hundreds.

Moreover, there is the problem of verification. The INF treaty forbade concealment and everything from physical to satellite checks were permitted. It did not prevent Russia from breaching the treaty to build a missile whose range was in thousands of kilometres while Moscow claimed below five hundred. All the same, verification did supply a higher level of compliance for several decades. Verifications do not apply to the Chinese inventory of intermediate range missiles. When Trump wanted China in the arms control regime with Russia, China showed no interest. It was one more reason for him to get the United States out of the INF treaty.

While the threat from Russia persists especially from nuclear ICBMs, the greater strategic anxieties for the United States flow from China, with which a full-blown trade war is on. China uses its intermediate range nuclear forces to intimidate its perceived adversaries in the region, chief of which is the breakaway republic of Taiwan. China’s intermediate range rocket forces spread over the mainland and deployed in reclaimed islands of the South China Sea also help to exercise its hegemony over the contested South China Sea.

Having had a free pass, China would be hard-pressed to counter the rapid expansion of US intermediate range forces in the neighbourhood. Although they would be conventional weapons, dual-use capabilities would be built in for a quick switch. The problem is basing. The United States will base some of the missiles in Guam but the nearly five thousand kilometres separating it from China would render intermediate-range missiles rather ineffective. Japan and South Korea are definite possibilities but China would resist tooth and nail missile deployments in them.

The United States is likely to prevail and this will militarize the region irreversibly to China’s disadvantage. Once basing problems are overcome, the United States will draw China into a missile race in which China would have to give up at some point. This is classic containment. Like the former Soviet Union, the United States will seek to bust China through defence spending. There would be no necessity of fighting a war. A trade war and a missile race would be more than China could bear. Donald Trump is aware of this.

Naturally, China would make common cause with Russia against the United States. But if US intermediate range forces are preponderantly deployed against China, Russia cannot gratuitously pick up a fight with Washington. Donald Trump could calculate that Russia would appreciate China stewing in its own juice. If the trade war is not resolved by then, the missile race will compel Beijing to sue for peace. Also, China may plead for arms control talks to end the missile bleed. That would entail concessions from its side on Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Donald Trump’s geopolitics makes sense.