Asian Perceptions of BMD: Defence or Disequilibrium?

By Tow, William T.; Choong, William | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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Asian Perceptions of BMD: Defence or Disequilibrium?

Tow, William T., Choong, William, Contemporary Southeast Asia


As geopolitical competition between the United States and China intensifies, East Asian policy-makers are apprehensive about the Bush Administration's plans to develop ballistic missile defence (BMD). Missile defence threatens to undermine other fundamental assumptions about nuclear weapons politics and arms control. This article argues that, if not carefully managed, BMD could undermine Washington's extended deterrence commitments to its regional friends and allies. Initially, a brief summary of developments leading to Asian concerns about missile defence will be offered. How BMD may affect Washington's extended deterrence strategy in the region will be reviewed. Southeast Asia is emphasized here because this sub region has been largely ignored in previous analyses of BMD's impact on Asia-Pacific stability. The article concludes by offering two policy recommendations regarding the applicability of BMD to A SEAN'S security environment.


A decade after the Soviet Union's demise, the shape of post-Cold War geopolitics is changing rapidly. The United States under President George W. Bush appears to be reverting to a very realist world-view that advocates building up unparalleled U.S. military power but using it only sparingly. This is in sharp contrast to the posture adopted by his liberal predecessor, Bill Clinton, who frequently deployed U.S. forces for humanitarian intervention and peacekeeping operations in Europe and who entertained a vision of a prosperous and stable "Pacific Community". Strategists are debating the implications of current structural changes in international relations, with some interpreting them as foreshadowing a "unipolar world" dominated by the United States and others anticipating that a complex multipolar configuration is taking shape.

Opponents of BMD counter that such weapon systems pose dramatic diplomatic and strategic threats to global stability. They threaten what is regarded as a still stable strategic nuclear balance between the United States and Russia and the strategic arms control agreements, such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, that underwrite it. They will strengthen China's motivation to accelerate its nuclear force capabilities. They will lead to nuclear arms proliferation in Asia and the Middle East. Most alarmingly, BMD will blur the distinction between strategic offence and defence, thus intensifying arms races and security dilemmas. (2)

Ballistic missile defence (BMD) has emerged as one of the key factors in this debate. American proponents of BMD argue that the world has relied on the strategy of nuclear deterrence for too long: expecting all nuclear weapons states, including so-called "rogue states" (whose goals and values may diverge greatly from those held by traditional nuclear powers), to exercise restraint in future crises is, they assert historically misguided and strategically unsound. A sound missile defence technology will redress the faulty perception of common "rationality" that has dominated strategic nuclear planning throughout the post-war era. The United States and its forces stationed abroad are becoming increasingly valnerable to the threat of ballistic and cruise missile attacks by "rogue states" that are hostile to its values and interests. Established nuclear powers, such as Russia and China, will continue to pursue their own nuclear strategies and force development, whether BMD is deployed or not, and with their own deterrence postures will be unaffected by the limited missile defence protection BMD is designed provide. In an environment of increasing strategic uncertainly created by the expansion of potentially hostile WMD (weapons of mass destruction) proliferents, missile defence must be developed and deployed to defend the United States, its forward-deployed forces, and its friends and allies. (1)

During the early days of his presidency, George W. Bush made clear his intentions to deploy both a National Missile Defence (NMD) version of BMD to protect the U.

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