Sparking a Buildup: U.S. Missile Defense and China's Nuclear Arsenal

By Ferguson, Charles | Arms Control Today, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Sparking a Buildup: U.S. Missile Defense and China's Nuclear Arsenal


Ferguson, Charles, Arms Control Today


"A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it."

-Chinese proverb

Currently, China is exploring how to modernize its aging nuclear, forces as it simultaneously finds itself adapting to the circumstances presented by the U.S. development of advanced theater missile defense for East Asia and national missile defense for the United States. The concurrence of these two events could lead to China shaping a significantly larger nuclear force that could strike the United States unless Washington decides that missile defense deployment is not in its best interest and China continues to adhere to a minimum deterrent posture consistent with its currently small arsenal.

More than simply finding ways to preserve China's nuclear deterrent, the vociferous Chinese opposition to U.S. missile defense plans symbolizes the more significant strategic clash over the roles of the United States and China in the world. Just at the time when China is starting to develop economic and military muscle and is successfully emerging from a century of foreign domination and humiliation, which stretched from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, it is increasingly alarmed about the United States as a global hegemon that is growing without bounds.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin articulated the strategic clash between China and the United States in a speech commemorating the Chinese who died as a result of the May 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kosovo. "Relying on its economic, scientific, technological, and military prowess, the United States continues to practice hegemony and power politics and wantonly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. What it has done has heightened the vigilance of more and more countries and people,' he said.4

Making explicit the perceived connection between missile defense and the United States' encroachment on China's sovereignty General Zhang Wannian, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, stated, "Any country selling the theater missile defense system to China's Taiwan or incorporating Taiwan in the theater missile defense program will directly or indirectly put Taiwan in the framework of Japan-U.S. security cooperation, which will be a grave infringement in China's internal affairs." He made this statement at a June 9, 1999, meeting with Marshal Sergeyev Russia's minister of defense, who "expressed satisfaction with the development of friendly cooperation between the two armed forces [of China and Russia]," according to Zhang. He added that "Russia is resolutely opposed to the U.S. attempt for world hegemony."2

From the U.S. government's perspective, its "leadership has never been more needed, or more in demand. And so it is perplexing that the United States finds itself today being accused of both hegemony and isolationism at the same time," according to Samuel Bergen assistant to the president for national security affairs.3 In the same speech, he elaborated, "Among our many friends and allies around the world, the dominant vision of the United States still is one of a country whose leadership is essential to peace and prosperity and which exercises leadership for the greater good." Concerning China, he called for balance, asserting that "we should not look at China through rose-colored glasses; neither should we see it through a glass darkly, distorting its strength and ignoring its complexities."

To follow Berger's advice on China, each side needs to understand the other's security concerns. The coincident timing between China's nuclear force modernization and the United States' missile defense development presents a critical moment for the United States and China to attempt to reach a strategic understanding. It is not clear whether or not the United States will decide to deploy a national missile defense, but U.S. intentions toward China seem ambiguous at best, and hostile at worst. …

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