June 9, 2000

Reality Check: Beijing Must Factor into Missile Defense Equation

Greg May,  Nixon Center Assistant Director

As America plunges ahead with its plan to deploy a limited national missile defense (NMD) system, the U.S. is making a great effort to overcome Russian opposition. But it is actually the reaction of China, not Russia, that will be the decisive factor in whether a missile defense system will ultimately improve U.S. security or lead to a new arms race. Unfortunately, Washington is paying scant attention to the potential impact missile defense will have on America’s strategic relations with the world’s most populous nation.

Beijing’s opposition to missile defense must be analyzed in the context of China’s glaring vulnerability. Unlike Russia, which has more than enough missiles (well over 1,000) to overwhelm a limited NMD system, China has only around 20 ICBMs, all DF-5s, capable of hitting North America. A liquid-fueled, silo-based behemoth with a single nuclear warhead, the DF-5 takes several hours to prepare for flight. In the event of a preemptive nuclear strike, China would be lucky to get any of its DF-5s in the air. When an NMD system is added to the mix, China worries that even its minimal deterrent capability will be rendered invalid.

Adding to Beijing’s anxiety is the perception that U.S. enthusiasm for missile defense is inversely proportional to its interest in traditional arms control. The Senate’s failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) last year, Washington’s cool reaction to Moscow’s offer to cut nuclear arsenals to 1,500 warheads, and America’s eagerness to scrap the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty all give Chinese leaders the impression that the U.S. is more interested in solidifying its absolute strategic advantage than achieving meaningful disarmament.

Finally, China believes American missile defense programs will harm its regional interests. In addition to NMD, the U.S. also plans to deploy theater missile defense (TMD) in East Asia. Japan is already a partner in TMD and Taiwan wants to join. Beijing worries that a U.S.-led TMD effort will expand America’s influence in East Asia and blunt China’s short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which China uses to compensate for its poor navy and air force. Most importantly, Beijing fears TMD’s extension to Taiwan would create a de facto alliance between Taipei, Washington, and Tokyo that would destroy any chance of China-Taiwan reunification.

None of this is to say that missile defense is a bad idea simply because China dislikes it. China cannot dictate U.S. decisions and it is ridiculous to suggest, as Beijing often does, that America has an obligation to leave itself and its allies completely vulnerable to missile strikes. However, the U.S. would be foolish to totally ignored China’s concerns, thus insuring maximum damage to U.S.-China relations.

There are several key factors that will determine whether the U.S. can pursue missile defense while avoiding a new Cold War with China.

The first factor is whether the U.S. can remain calm in the face of China’s inevitable missile modernization. China will likely deploy its DF-41 missile—a new solid-fueled and road-mobile missile capable of reaching most parts of the U.S.—sometime between 2005 and 2010. Regardless of America’s decisions about NMD, China has good reason to want to replace its sitting duck DF-5s. NMD, however, will likely prompt China to increase its total number of ICBMs and to equip them with countermeasures designed to defeat missile interceptors in order to maintain a minimum deterrent. Americans should be careful not to jump to the conclusion that China’s development of the DF-41 signals growing Chinese hostility or that China is emerging as a Soviet-like threat.

The second factor is whether the U.S. can maintain the momentum behind arms control and disarmament. Cutting the U.S. nuclear force to the bare minimum, as George W. Bush has suggested, would help make missile defense more palatable to both Beijing and Moscow. China is less likely to expand its strategic forces if the U.S. and Russia are making progress on reducing their massive Cold War arsenals.

The third key factor will be whether the U.S. extends TMD to Taiwan. Taiwan wants to join TMD as a way of boosting its security ties with the United States and Japan. But given Taiwan’s proximity to China, a costly TMD system capable of intercepting missiles at very high altitudes does not necessarily make military sense. South Korea has opted out of TMD due to similar cost-benefit concerns. Rather than officially include Taiwan in a region-wide TMD effort, the U.S. could continue to provide Taiwan with "low-tier" missile defense technology—including upgraded Patriot missiles and early-warning radar—while giving Taiwan additional cover via sea-based TMD on American warships.

The final factor is whether the United States will be able to engage China in deeper strategic dialogue. As an emerging economic power, China will be able to build a much larger strategic arsenal if it chooses. The United States has an overwhelming interest in insuring that China’s nuclear force remains small. For its part, China wants to avoid the huge expense of maintaining a massive-strike capability, but it worries that its security is eroding in the face of overwhelming American advantage. Given the impact China’s actions will have on the future security environment, Moscow is not the only place the U.S. President must make his case for missile defense.


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