China has said that any intermediate-range missiles deployed by the US in the Asia Pacific will be seen by Beijing as “offensive in nature”, after US defence secretary Mark Esper said he hoped to place new weapons systems in the region.
The US last week officially withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia after Moscow refused to destroy a new missile that Washington and its Nato allies said counted as a breach of the arms control pact. The administration has also pointed to China’s growing land-based missile capabilities as another reason for its decision.
During a visit to Australia over the weekend, Mr Esper told reporters that exiting the treaty left the US free to build up intermediate-range conventional missiles systems in the Pacific region, saying that he would prefer to begin doing so in “months”, although there was no firm timeline for deployment.
Responding to Mr Esper’s comments, China’s foreign ministry on Tuesday said the country’s missiles were stationed within its borders and were defensive in nature while any US deployment of missiles in the Asia Pacific would “clearly be extremely offensive in nature”.
“China . . . will not allow any country to provoke trouble on its doorstep and will take all necessary measures in order to resolutely defend the nation’s security and interests,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Ms Hua said the US “Indo-Pacific strategy” and “constant strengthening of military alliances in the region” threatened regional stability.
US allies in the region have so far sought to downplay the possibility of additional missiles being deployed.
Following talks with Mr Esper at the weekend in Sydney, Australia’s defence minister Linda Reynolds told Australian radio that the US defence secretary had made no request to place new weapons in the country.
“I asked him directly, ‘Was there any expectation of a request?’ and he said: ‘No’,” she said.
South Korea’s defence ministry also said that it had not been asked to deploy missiles nor had it considered the issue, a spokesperson said.
The country, one of the key US allies in the region, has in recent years been hit by a wave of Chinese anger — including economic boycotts — after Seoul decided in 2016 to install the US-operated Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile shield, known as Thaad.
Like Thaad, Beijing would view any US deployment of an intermediate-range missile system in South Korea as undermining China’s nuclear deterrence, making it a potentially “explosive issue” for Seoul, said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
“If the US were to deploy intermediate-range missiles on the Korean peninsula, that is going to lead to a huge controversy, probably even a more negative reaction from the Chinese than in 2016,” Mr Go said.
Meanwhile, at a ceremony on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe rejected any notion of hosting nuclear weapons in the country. In a speech, he restated Japan’s “firm” commitment to neither possess nor manufacture nuclear weapons, or ever “permit their introduction into Japanese territory”.
Additional reporting by Leo Lewis in Tokyo