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Security

Asia-Pacific Cannot Afford Medium-range Missile Competition

Sep 11 , 2019
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

After the United States officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the country hopes to deploy medium-range missiles in Asia. This remark quickly sparked widespread controversy, and most countries don’t want to see the terrible scene of a missile race in the region.

The deployment of medium-range missiles had become one of issues in Esper’s first visits to Asia. The U.S. proposal had not received a positive response from allies. Australia and South Korea explicitly opposed the deployment of the equipment in their territory, while other countries avoided public statements. China, Russia and Cambodia are fiercely opposed to the proposal, which they said would have a negative impact on regional stability. After receiving such feedback, the United States did not abandon this idea. Officials from the U.S. State Department said the U.S. is still discussing appropriate deployment methods with its allies. At the end of August, the U.S. military tested a medium-range missile.

On the issue of medium-range missiles, the United States has greater differences with its Asia-Pacific allies than on other military issues. From the perspective of the U.S. military, the deployment of medium-range missiles in the region can achieve a triple purpose and create a more favorable regional strategic environment.

One of the purposes is to reduce China’s asymmetric deterrence capability against the United States. The U.S. military believes that the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability by China is the main threat to the U.S. China’s A2/AD weakens U.S. military superiority based on maritime combat platforms and air supremacy, and would limit its freedom of maneuver during a conflict in the western Pacific. There are two ways for the U.S. to resolve this strategy. One is to use technology advantages to significantly weaken China’s A2/AD ability, and the other is to adopt a hedging strategy to reduce China’s willingness to use A2/AD. The deployment of medium-range missiles around China supports the latter option.

The second purpose is to deepen the strategic bundling of Asia-Pacific allies with the United States. The deployment of medium-range missiles among Asian allies will accelerate the formation of an Asia-Pacific version of NATO, forcing those allies to join the U.S. command and reconnaissance system. The relationship between the U.S. allies and both China and Russia will deteriorate. The Asia-Pacific region will form into two hostile military camps.

The third purpose is to provide resources and time for a new U.S. offset strategy. In terms of time, the deployment of medium-range missiles by the U.S. will launch a missile race in the region, consuming the resources of major U.S. competitors and making it impossible to compete with the U.S. in innovation. In terms of resources, the medium-range missiles will reduce U.S. investment in traditional armaments in the region, allowing it to invest more money in long-term technology research.

However, for Asia-Pacific countries, the deployment of medium-range missiles may trigger an escalating arms race that threatens the security of all countries in the region.

First of all, the geographical conditions in the Asia-Pacific region are special, and the risk of an upgraded missile arms race is great. Many countries in Asia are isolated by oceans or mountains. Missiles are the most important security threat, as well as the priority for deterrence. Based on this general concern, Asian countries are cautious about deploying medium-range missiles. The deployment of such missiles by the U.S. will break the balance in the region and increase the strategic suspicions of all parties.

Second, the deployment of medium-range missiles will intensify the potential for security crises in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, the Asia-Pacific region is the safest region in the world. Peace is based on the fact that all parties are trying to manage their security risks. The deployment of medium-range missiles in this region will intensify the Taiwan and South China Sea issues and is likely to end the positive trend of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, the deployment of medium-range missiles by the U.S. will jeopardize commercial trust between Asia-Pacific countries and foster strategic suspicions. This kind of impact will be directly reflected in the safety of transportation routes. In the recent crisis, Iran warned that it might use missiles to block oil passage in the Middle East. A missile race in the Asia-Pacific region will allow similar risks to reappear, which will have a devastating effect on trade.

From the perspective of Esper’s Asia-Pacific trip, the United States underestimated the vigilance of Asian allies on medium-range missiles. Asian countries know that the U.S. is immune to the Asian missile race. Such a strategy will only weaken the strategic autonomy of Asian countries and not serve their long-term interests.

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