The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1268es

April 7, 1999

April 7, 1999 | Executive Summary on

Executive Summary: China Increases Its Missile Forces While Opposing U.S. Missile Defense

Revelations that China stole U.S. nuclear warhead secrets highlight two strategic challenges to the United States. New, small nuclear warheads--developed with the help of U.S. warhead information--will allow China to put multiple warheads on new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or equip short-range missiles with nuclear warheads. In Asia, China already has increased to over 100 the number of missiles pointed at Taiwan, and future theater ballistic and cruise missiles could threaten U.S. forces in Asia and U.S. allies.

Second, China's vigorous campaign to block U.S.-Japan missile defense cooperation and future U.S. sales of missile defense equipment to Taiwan seeks to preserve a growing advantage in missile forces while putting great pressure on U.S. allies in Asia in the hope that this will weaken their alliances with the United States. If the United States and its allies were not to cooperate in missile defenses, this would undermine allied confidence in U.S. defense commitments and force Asian states to consider building their own missiles to deter China.


China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) hopes that by developing a range of nuclear and non-nuclear missiles, it can deter American support for Taiwan and project military power in Asia. For China, missiles are a weapon system that it can produce; it has much difficulty in producing modern combat aircraft and warships. Missiles also address a military weakness of the United States and its allies: lack of effective missile defense systems. New, more accurate missiles also allow China to seek greater political leverage in Asia. China will likely use the threat of its new missile forces to coerce political concessions, especially from Taiwan.

In the next several years, China can be expected to field a new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, more accurate medium- and short-range ballistic missiles, and a new land-attack cruise missile. These will be supported by new reconnaissance, intelligence, and navigation satellites. China's goal is to create a "reconnaissance-strike complex" that marries space and airborne sensors to provide precise targeting data to highly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles. Besides making greater use of outer space for military purposes, China also seeks to develop the means to destroy opposing satellites and may also be developing its own missile defenses.


China hopes to create the impression that American defensive missiles, not China's new offensive missiles, threaten peace in Asia. But it can be expected that China will only increase its missile forces in response to U.S. missile defense plans. The Clinton Administration is not responding adequately to China's threats and is not sufficiently affirming the need for U.S. missile defenses. China's attack against U.S. missile defense plans must be seen as an attempt to limit the future scope of U.S. alliances in Asia. This is unacceptable for the United States, as its alliances are a vital element of its national security in Asia.

To prevent the U.S.-China relationship from lapsing into a Cold War-like confrontation, America must demonstrate resolve and leadership in responding to the challenge of China's growing missile forces and its anti-missile defense campaign. The United States should:

  • State that China's missiles threaten peace in Asia.
    The Clinton Administration should offer a full assessment of China's future missile development plans to Congress and the American people. The Administration should note clearly that it is China's missiles, not U.S. missile defenses, which threaten peace in Asia.

  • Deploy national missile defenses.
    To defend Americans from future Chinese missiles and to strengthen allied confidence in U.S. missile defense technology, the United States should rapidly deploy a national missile defense system based on the U.S. Navy's Theater-Wide missile defense system. A companion space-based sensor system should follow in the future.

  • Use theater missile defenses to strengthen U.S. alliances in Asia.
    The United States should rapidly develop and deploy effective theater missile defenses in Asia. Missile defense cooperation should be a major new mission for U.S. forces in cooperation with Australia, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. Such cooperation is needed to protect U.S. forces in Asia, as well as allied forces, from growing Chinese and North Korean missile forces.

  • Sell theater missile defenses to Taiwan.
    China's increased deployment of missiles near Taiwan requires that the United States sell Taiwan missile defense systems. Such sales are consistent with the goals of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and with the U.S. goal that future Taiwan-China relations be determined by peaceful means.

  • Suspend commercial space cooperation with China pending missile control negotiations.
    The United States should suspend civil space cooperation with China pending the completion of agreements with China that set limits on future missile competition. China's missile forces have benefited from commercial space cooperation with the United States. Such cooperation is not in America's interest as long as China's modernized missile forces can threaten Americans.

China's growing missile forces and its campaign to block the development and deployment of U.S. missile defenses pose a serious challenge to U.S.-China relations and to stability in Asia. Prevention of a future crisis with China requires that America be firm and resolute in responding to future Chinese threats. Missile defenses in Asia can help to persuade China that missile competition with the United States cannot succeed, and that China must instead refrain from threatening the United States and its Asian neighbors.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is the former Director of The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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