The Heritage Foundation

News Releases on Asia

April 8, 1999

April 8, 1999 | News Releases on Asia

China's Missile Program Threatens the U.S. and Its Asian Allies

WASHINGTON, APRIL 8, 1999-Unless the United States voices strong opposition to China's continuing buildup of ballistic and cruise missiles and proceeds to deploy missile defenses in Asia over Chinese objections, a "Cold War-like confrontation" will likely develop between the two countries, says a new paper by Heritage Foundation Asia expert Richard Fisher.

Just yesterday, on the eve of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's arrival in Washington, President Clinton dismissed the view that China is a danger to the United States as a "caricature." But its potential to pose a threat is all too real, Fisher says.

Recent reports show China used nuclear espionage to obtain U.S. military secrets that U.S. intelligence officials believe will enable it to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or short-range missiles with multiple warheads. Over the last several months, China has also placed more than 100 additional missiles in its eastern provinces facing Taiwan, "a key U.S. friend in Asia," according to Fisher.

In addition to ICBMs, China is developing several other types of missiles, including more accurate medium- and short-range ballistic missiles as well as sophisticated navigation satellites, says Fisher, director of Heritage's Asian Studies Center. China's missile program relies heavily on technological assistance from countries such as Russia, which has sold Beijing a variety of cruise and anti-ship missiles, and Israel, which allegedly sold U.S. Patriot missiles to China.

According to Fisher, a leading expert on the Chinese military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) considers missile technology "a principal component of its future warfare plans" for two reasons: 1) missiles compensate for China's inability to field modern combat aircraft and warships, and 2) missiles can easily exploit a central weakness of the United States and its Asian allies-the lack of an effective missile defense program.

The Clinton administration must reassure its Asian allies, such as the Philippines, Japan and South Korea, that it will counter this effort by the government in Beijing to alter the balance of power in Asia, Fisher says. If the United States fails to honor its commitments to provide adequate defenses for the region, its allies may be forced to build their own missiles to deter China-potentially touching off a new nuclear arms race.

The United States must not allow Beijing to intimidate it into abandoning its defense of Taiwan, Fisher says. To counter any possible threat, the United States should sell laser-based missile defense systems to the island republic. As Fisher notes, such an action is entirely permissible under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the United States to ensure relations between China and Taiwan remain peaceful.

The Chinese missile program threatens not only Taiwan and other U.S. allies in Asia, but the United States as well, Fisher says. Beijing continues to campaign hard against a U.S. missile defense program and has even suggested that it may respond to any such deployment by increasing the number of missiles it has targeted at the United States.

Although the Clinton administration wants to pursue a policy of "constructive strategic partnership" with the government in Beijing, it should not allow the PLA to jeopardize U.S. allies or interests, Fisher says. "Missile defenses in Asia can help persuade China that missile competition with the United States cannot succeed," he writes.

In a related paper, Thomas Moore, director of Heritage's Davis International Studies Center, shows how the Clinton administration-political rhetoric notwithstanding-still opposes missile defense. The National Missile Defense Act, which passed both the House and Senate by large bipartisan majorities last month, plainly calls for a missile-defense program to be deployed as soon as possible. But the White House sent a cable to U.S. embassies on March 19 informing diplomats that "no deployment decision has been made." The president should not engage in "deceptive spin control," Moore writes.

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