Missile Defense & China

By Huntley, Wade L.; Brown, Robert | Foreign Policy in Focus, January 15, 2001 | Go to article overview

Missile Defense & China


Huntley, Wade L., Brown, Robert, Foreign Policy in Focus


Volume 6, Number 3

JAN 15 2001

Key Points

* Taiwan is central to China's perceptions of TMD and NMD.

* U.S.-Japan cooperation on TMD development acts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance in the post-cold war context, raising Chinese concerns regarding the Northeast Asia region.

* As its strategic role expands, China's reactions to TMD and NMD become increasingly important.

Longstanding cold war fears that missile defenses would destabilize nuclear deterrence led the United States and the Soviet Union to conclude the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972. Nevertheless, in the U.S., the attractions of missile defense endure, fueled most recently by the apparent Gulf War successes of the Patriot missiles and by perceived threats of long-range missile launches by so-called "rogue" states.

There are several levels of missile defenses. Lower-tier theater missile defense (TMD) weapons, such as the Patriot, attempt to intercept shorter-range missiles as they descend toward their targets. Upper-tier TMD weapons (now under development) aim to intercept missiles while they are still above the atmosphere, thus protecting wider areas of territory. Current leading upper-tier proposals include the land-based Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Navy Theater Wide (NTW) system, which would be deployed on Aegis destroyers.

National Missile Defense (NMD) focuses on defending North America from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Unlike the more ambitious SDI (Star Wars) program promoted by the Reagan administration, the recently postponed Clinton administration NMD proposal would have deployed interceptors on North American soil to protect against a small number of ICBMs.

TMD and NMD proposals are more intricately linked than is often recognized. Although a key locus of these linkages in the Asia-Pacific region is China, the impact of proposed missile defenses on China is not sufficiently recognized. With a coalescing mandate to protect U.S. troops and fleets abroad, TMD development has proceeded without much scrutiny by U.S. citizens. The more rigorous NMD debate has focused mostly on the degrees of missile threats posed by states such as the DPRK (North Korea), NMD's potential impact on U.S.-Russia relations, and the merits of the ABM treaty.

China's concerns over both NMD and TMD, while differentiated and nuanced, fall generally into three categories. A major Chinese concern is TMD's potential application to Taiwan. Many in Beijing believe that only China's threat to use force deters an overt declaration of independence by Taiwan. Though many analysts doubt that China could successfully invade Taiwan to suppress independence, Taiwan is clearly vulnerable to China's short-range missile force. Deployment of TMD in or near Taiwan would reduce China's ability to use missile threats to politically intimidate Taiwan's leaders. Moreover, any U.S. role in such deployment would signal (to both Taipei and Beijing) a greater likelihood of U.S. military support of Taiwan in the event of overt conflict. Thus, China worries that TMD deployment would bolster Taiwanese independence sentiments.

A second Chinese concern is the impact of TMD in East Asia. Currently, the U.S. and Japan are collaborating to develop TMD to protect Japanese targets against regional missile attacks, most specifically from the DPRK. Chinese analysts are not persuaded that the DPRK threat is so grave, and so U.S.-Japan TMD collaboration exacerbates Chinese fears that both countries seek less constraint to act against China. The strengthening of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines, which conspicuously fail to define the geographic boundaries within which events could lead to joint U.S.-Japan military operations, underscores this Chinese perception.

These two concerns are directly linked. U.S.-Japan TMD planning now favors the NTW system, which would be deployed on Aegis cruisers that could be moved near Taiwan in the event of a conflict there. …

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