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A Way Forward on Ballistic Missile Defenses

Sep 05 , 2012

During his stopover in Japan earlier this month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the United States and Japan would construct a second advanced missile defense radar in Japan. Panetta stressed that the new radar, to be located in southern Japan, was designed to protect Japan and US military forces against North Korea, which has a fleet of missiles capable of reaching Japanese territory.

Panetta stressed that US ballistic missile defenses (BMD) were not designed against China. Indeed, the entire US missile defense program under construction is explicitly not designed, nor will it soon be capable, to negate the Chinese and Russian nuclear deterrent, which are based on intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. Instead, the intent is to defend against attacks by shorter-range missiles and at most a few unsophisticated long-range missiles by countries such as Iran and North Korea, which are not legally permitted to have nuclear weapons.

Although Panetta repeated these reassurances while in Beijing, Chinese officials continue to show great unease at US missile defense developments. Chinese government white papers warn that missile defense programs can undermine strategic balance and stability, thereby weakening international and regional security, and impede progress toward nuclear disarmament.

Chinese officials have repeated this message before, during, and now after Panetta's visit to Beijing. Responding to earlier comments by US Assistant Defense Secretary Madelyn Creedon that the United States was discussing missile defense cooperation with Australia, Japan and South Korea, Luo Zhaohui, Asian affairs chief for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in April 2012 that, "Building a missile defense system in the Asia-Pacific region will have negative effects on global and regional strategic stability, and go against the security needs of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region."

PRC analysts worry that, despite US declarations, the United States aims to develop missile defenses sufficiently capable to negate China's strategic nuclear deterrent. Beijing also fears that Washington and Tokyo might at some point seek to extend a missile shield to cover Taiwan.

More recent Chinese concerns relate to US defense cooperation with India and other Asian countries. In February 2012, Air Force colonel Dai Xu, a PRC specialist in this area, published an article asserting that " Washington's deployment of anti-missile systems around China's periphery forms a crescent-shaped encirclement." Chinese analysts complained after Panetta's announcement that Washington was indirectly encouraging Japan to take a harder line in its territorial dispute with China.

In July 2012, Major General Zhu Chenghu of China's National Defense University said that China may need to increase its strategic offensive capabilities "to maintain the credibility of deterrence" given US moves to deploy more effective missile defense. China's expanding offensive nuclear capabilities are in turn making it harder for Russia and the United States to agree to further reduce their own strategic forces.

Although China's nuclear arsenal could more easily be neutralized by emerging US missile defense systems than Russia's larger fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, Chinese officials have declined to pursue Russian probes about greater cooperation in this area. Chinese and Russian representatives have thus far largely limited their BMD efforts to issuing joint declarations, though Russia has in principle decided to sell advanced S-400 air defense systems to China that have some missile defense capacities.

Chinese analysts have informally explained that they are weighing the value of working with Russia, but are concerned that Moscow might, as in 2001, abandon China to reach a separate agreement with the United States on the issue. They also worry that, unlike Russia, China lacks any missile defense assets they could offer the United States in return for BMD cooperation.

More extensive Sino-Russian BMD collaboration could range from simply exchanging intelligence assessments to undertaking joint research and development programs for shared anti-BMD technologies. For example, they could pool their resources or expertise to overcome US BMD systems stationed on their peripheries. They could also coordinate pressure against other countries in Europe or Asia to abstain from deploying US BMD assets.

But BMD collaboration between China and the United States is also possible. Proposals persist for some mutually agreed information exchanges and transparency initiatives between the United States and Russia, which could also be extended to include China.

Although constraining future US BMD programs with legally binding agreements or offering China sensitive information regarding US BMD technologies is presently untenable, US officials might commit to inform their Chinese counterparts of their long-range BMD plans on a regular basis without much difficulty. The Defense Department regularly includes such data in its budget and planning documents.

Establishing the long-discussed jointly manned data exchange centers could also provide a means to allow some US BMD cooperation with China. PRC representatives could help operate one or more centers together with the United States and its allies. The centers could send technical data regarding ballistic missile launches from satellites, radars, and other sensors centers.

Such an arrangement would modestly increase mutual transparency and yet not jeopardize the national security or freedom of action of the parties since sensitive interceptor data would go only to their national and alliance command centers, which would manage the interceptions.  

Furthermore, various strategic confidence-building measures that limit the nature and scope of military activities could be applied to the missile defense domain. These might include providing advanced warning of any major BMD exercises or ensuring that some telemetry data was accessible to foreign governments.

Although they have proved unsuccessful in the case of Russia, US representatives should also strive to educate their Chinese counterparts about the limited nature of US missile defenses. Russian officials have adopted a closed mind about US BMD activities, but the Chinese, not having as much historical baggage as the Russia-US strategic relationship, might have a more flexible approach to the issue.


Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.

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