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China Warns U.S. Against Sending Missiles to Asia Amid Fears of an Arms Race

China warned it would “not stand idly by” if the United States deployed ground-based missiles to Asia, as a bruising trade war and strained relations fueled fears of an arms race between Beijing, Washington and Moscow.

A Chinese arms control official, Fu Cong, delivered the warning three days after the American defense secretary, Mark Esper, said he favored deploying such missiles to the region “sooner rather than later.” Mr. Esper did not give an exact timeline or a possible base for the missiles, but suggested it would take months, potentially 18 or more, to field the weapons.

“We call on the U.S. to exercise restraint,” Mr. Fu said in a Foreign Ministry statement Tuesday. “China will not stand idly by and will be forced to take countermeasures if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range ground-based missiles in this part of the world.”

Mr. Fu did not specify what countermeasures China would take in response to a deployment. He did say, though, that China had “no interest” in arms control talks with the United States and Russia — a step toward President Trump’s ambition of a three-way nuclear accord.

The Trump administration has argued that Russian-American arms agreements are outdated in the context of a rising China, and on Friday the United States formally pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, or I.N.F., on the grounds of Russian violations.

Mr. Fu said the American withdrawal from the treaty would have “a direct negative impact” on global stability and security, and called it a “pretext” for an American weapons buildup.

Russia has denied violating the I.N.F. and objected to the American withdrawal, but expressed interest in new negotiations. Explaining China’s resistance to those talks, Mr. Fu cited the disparity in weapons stockpiles, saying, “I do not think it is reasonable or even fair to expect China to participate in any nuclear reduction negotiations at this stage.”

Together, the United States and Russia hold more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit based in Washington. The group estimates that the United States has about 1,750 deployed warheads, Russia has about 1,600 and China about 290.

Mr. Fu said that China took part in multilateral discussions on arms, and that it would “not participate in any nuclear arms race.”

Chinese protests have done little to quell fears of a new global arms race. On Tuesday, a former energy secretary in the Obama administration, Ernest J. Moniz, and a former Georgia senator, Sam Nunn, published an article in Foreign Affairs warning that a “toxic mix of decaying arms control and new advanced weaponry” have made a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States “disturbingly plausible.”

“Its essential elements are already present today; all that is needed is a spark to light the tinder,” they wrote.

American officials have repeatedly warned about Chinese and Russian buildups. Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in May that China was likely to diversify and “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade. Russia’s nuclear stockpile was “likely to grow significantly,” he said.

The Trump administration has also made efforts to modernize its stockpile, releasing a plan last year about how it could improve the American arsenal, including tactical nuclear weapons.

Although Mr. Esper, the defense secretary, has proposed sending conventional missiles — not nuclear warheads — to Asia, the Trump administration’s approach still threatened to raise tensions all over the Pacific, said Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament at the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit organization.

“The United States ought to maintain appropriate military readiness in the face of the growing China challenge in the region, but we can’t missile our way out of this challenge,” he said, noting that China could respond by fielding more weapons or targeting American allies for economic retaliation.

“China’s certainly not blameless here,” he added. “China has deployed hundreds of missiles of this range, and shunned engaging in meaningful arms control talks and discussions with the United States.”

President Trump may also let the New Start treaty, an arms agreement with Russia, expire in February 2021 rather than renew it for five years. Its expiration would mean “there would be no limits on the nuclear arms of the U.S. or Russia for the first time in nearly 50 years,” Mr. Reif said.

Experts say the most likely locations for an American deployment would be South Korea or Japan, although Tokyo has recently been improving its relations with China. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said Monday that his country would not host American intermediate-range missiles.

Mr. Fu said that the deployment of missiles to an American ally in the Pacific would be like “deploying missiles at the doorsteps of China.” Even on the American territory of Guam, he said, a deployment would be “a very provocative action” and could be “very dangerous.”

He added a warning to American allies in the region, naming Japan, South Korea and Australia. China called on “our neighboring countries to exercise prudence and not to allow U.S. deployment on its territory,” he said, “because that will not serve the national security interests of these countries.”

China has flexed its economic muscles in the past to punish American allies. After South Korea let the United States install an antimissile system there, China called for a wide boycott of South Korean products and railed against its neighbor for more than a year. Since then, Chinese-American relations have only deteriorated in the wake of a two-year trade war that has battered both countries and sown mutual distrust.


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