Ballistic Missile Defense and Northeast Asian Security

Evan S. Medeiros
April, 2001

View the full report:
Ballistic Missile Defense and Northeast Asian Security:
Views from Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo

Missile Defenses and Asian Security

Ballistic Missile Polaris A3, Wikimedia Commons

Ballistic Missile Polaris A3,
Wikimedia Commons

The United States is paying high political costs for pursuing missile defense systems whose potential military benefits lie far in the future. Uncertainty about the final performance of missile defense systems still in varying stages of development aggravates this problem, because other countries adopt worst case assumptions that the systems will be highly effective and respond accordingly.

Chinese concerns about missile defense focus mainly on political questions such as the impact on Japanese militarization; whether theater missile defense (TMD) would encourage Taiwan independence; and US intentions toward China. US decisions about missile defense deployments should take this broader political context into account and should not be based solely on narrow military criteria. The negative impact of missile defense deployments on Sino-US relations could potentially be reduced by offsetting them with political and economic measures to reassure China.

The Japanese government is interested in missile defense as a means of defending Japan against missile and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats and strengthening the US-Japan security alliance. However, Japanese policymakers have a number of concerns about cost, effectiveness and the impact on Sino-Japanese relations and global arms control efforts. Although Japan is conducting joint-TMD research with the United States, it has not committed to deployment. Its position is like a poker player who keeps anteing up and waiting to see the next card before deciding whether to stay in the game or fold.

National Missile Defense

The United States and China hold drastically different views on the aims, role and potential of a national missile defense (NMD) system. US policymakers see NMD as an insurance policy to support US national defense if deterrence fails, which is viewed as a real possibility. In contrast, China opposes NMD on two levels: military and political. Militarily, Beijing believes that NMD is structured, sized and focused to negate China’s nuclear forces. Politically, Beijing believes that NMD deployment amounts to a concrete manifestation of US determination to consolidate its position as a global hegemon and a clear manifestation of hostility toward China.

China will react to current US NMD deployment plans by accelerating its strategic modernization, developing countermeasures to defeat the system and increasing the overall size of its nuclear force. Most US participants believe it would be dangerous to try to negate this larger Chinese nuclear force with an expanded NMD architecture because such efforts would likely fail and would cause serious damage to bilateral relations in the process. The United States should expect a proportional Chinese nuclear buildup in response to NMD deployment.

Confidence-building measures and strategic dialogue could help diffuse tensions over NMD deployment. The United States could seek to reassure China that NMD is not intended to undermine the Chinese nuclear deterrent, while China could be more transparent about the ultimate size of its strategic forces. Several Chinese participants supported starting a serious official dialogue on NMD and strategic stability to clarify the nature of the US-China strategic relationship and to avoid negative misperceptions.

China’s anti-NMD diplomacy plays on Russian and European fears that unilateral deployment of NMD would disrupt strategic stability. US and Japanese participants agreed that an NMD agreement with Russia could help reduce the effectiveness of China’s anti-NMD diplomatic campaign. One possibility would be significant bilateral US-Russian reductions in offensive arms mixed with deployments of limited defensive systems.

Japanese views on NMD are mixed. Some believe NMD will strengthen the US defense commitment and enhance the credibility of extended deterrence. Others believe that deployment outside a modified Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty would undermine strategic stability by provoking China and Russia. Additionally, some Japanese are concerned that NMD deployment will mark the end of nuclear arms reduction efforts.

Theater Missile Defense

The likely regional consequences of TMD vary with the political footprint and capabilities of each system. One set of Chinese concerns is linked to where the systems would be based, with Chinese objections strongest on Taiwan and somewhat less on Japan. A second set of concerns varies with the potential effectiveness of each system, with less concern about PAC-3 and other lower-tier systems and more concern about upper-tier systems.

Beijing opposes all forms of TMD deployment in Taiwan because it believes missile defense promotes stronger military ties between Taipei and Washington and claims such deployments encourage pro-independence sentiments within Taiwan. Similarly, Beijing is skeptical about Tokyo’s effort to achieve a TMD capability because it sees this as a means for Japan to expand its regional role and influence.

Despite joint research with the United States, Japan is not yet committed to development or deployment of the Navy Theater Wide (NTW) system. While the Japan Defense Agency and Foreign Ministry actively support missile defense, others in the government and the Diet have concerns about cost and effectiveness. Positive developments on the Korean Peninsula or in cross-Strait relations could decrease political support for NTW.

TMD advocates in the United States and Japan want to use missile defense cooperation as a means to strengthen US-Japan security ties, but they do not want TMD cooperation to become a litmus test for the overall health of the alliance.

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