Theater Missile Defense: How Will It Recast Security and Diplomacy in East Asia?

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Theater Missile Defense: How Will It Recast Security and Diplomacy in East Asia?

August 17, 2000 10 min read
Peter Brookes
Peter Brookes
Former Senior Research Fellow, Center for National Defense
Peter researched and developed Heritage’s policy on weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation.

The great unexamined story today regarding ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Asia is the unspoken effect that actions by the People's Republic of China (PRC) are having on America's consideration of its own future missile defenses. The Clinton Administration decries missile programs in Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, but for some inexplicable reason it fears mentioning the "C" word: China.

The White House says hardly a word about China's ongoing ballistic missile buildup, its irresponsible proliferation practices, or its robust strategic modernization program. I am at a loss to explain why this silence persists. China's national security policies and practices are critical to peace and stability in Asia and to American interests. The PRC's actions are having a direct effect on American deliberations about missile defenses. We must make this clear to Beijing.

In perhaps the most benign strategic security environment it has ever experienced, the PRC is pressing ahead with an ambitious conventional ballistic missile and strategic nuclear force modernization program.

While most perceive that the threat of war has receded, China is increasing the size and capability of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) ballistic missile and strategic nuclear forces--known within the Chinese military as the Second Artillery. Regrettably, this development presents the United States, its friends, and allies with a new strategic challenge in Asia that must be considered and addressed.

Though many downplay China's conventional military and nuclear force modernization, the PRC has tested the DF-31, a land-mobile, multi-stage, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the west coast of the United States.

The DF-31 is a significant technological leap over the twenty or so of the 1960s-era, silo-based, liquid-fueled CSS-4 ICBMs China currently fields. When it is deployed, the DF-31 will be the world's second type of the more evasive, less vulnerable land-mobile ICBM, following the Russian SS-25.

The PRC is also developing a submarine-launched version of the DF-31 and an even longer-range mobile ICBM, the DF-41. The JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, with its 8,000 kilometer (km) range, will give the Chinese the capability, for the first time, to target parts of the continental United States operating from maritime areas near China's coastline. Its deployment, which is expected in the latter half of this decade, will enhance and broaden China's strategic force structure and increase its nuclear deterrence capability.

The DF-41 ICBM, with a range of 12,000 km, is also scheduled to be deployed later this decade, and is expected to be capable of reaching targets anywhere in the United States. The Cox Committee report released by Congress last year assessed that both the DF-31 and DF-41 will carry multiple warheads.

It is further unclear whether these new systems will replace older systems or augment the existing force structure. If these missiles are meant to enlarge the current force, it would represent an effort by Beijing to improve both the quality and quantity of its strategic nuclear arsenal. Into its ballistic missile force, China has already deployed over 250 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) opposite Taiwan. This number is expected to grow to over 650 missiles in the next five years, according to the Pentagon. These mobile missiles, which can be redeployed to areas other than the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait, pose a potential threat to South Korea, Japan, and U.S. forces stationed there. This missile buildup is undermining stability in the region.

A September 1999 National Intelligence Council paper, "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," reports that in 15 years China will likely have tens of missiles targeted against the United States including a few tens of the more survivable mobile missiles incorporating smaller nuclear warheads influenced by U.S. technology gained through espionage.

The Cox Committee report estimates that the Chinese will deploy over 100 ICBMs with over 1,000 warheads by 2015. Yet others estimate that the PRC will field an even more muscular force of between 150 and 200 ICBMs by 2010.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, China has increased the range, accuracy, survivability, reliability, safety, mobility, and response capability of its strategic and conventional missile forces, and in the future could employ a multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capability with improved penetration aids and countermeasures.

Further exacerbating the situation are China's proliferation practices. Beijing sells missiles, equipment, and enabling technology to Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Syria, and Libya. The Director of Central Intelligence reports that the PRC remains a "key supplier" of technology inconsistent with nonproliferation goals--particularly missile and chemical technology. China is primarily responsible for Pakistan's nuclear program. These policies and practices undermine American interests and destabilize both South Asia and the Middle East.

The Clinton Administration asserts this upgraded conventional missile and strategic force capability is consistent with China's general military modernization program. Others are less sanguine about it.

Though the Chinese Second Artillery has not yet achieved parity with U.S. forces, these developments will clearly improve the PLA's war-fighting capability, alter the dynamics of deterrence in the region, shift the balance of power in Asia, and be a source of instability.

These changes pose many unanswered questions: For instance, what is driving this arms buildup? Would China threaten the United States, or its forward-deployed forces, with attack if Washington interfered with Beijing's policy toward Taiwan or took military action against North Korea? Over time, how credible will American extended deterrence in Asia remain? Will Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea see a need for their own nuclear option or an offensive missile program?

Will Delhi feel compelled to increase its missile and nuclear arsenal leading to an arms race with Beijing and Islamabad and greater instability on the South Asian subcontinent? How will Russia ultimately respond to a growing Chinese nuclear and missile capability? Clearly, in any confrontation with Beijing--political or military--Washington would have to be mindful of the PLA's improved strategic operational flexibility and sophistication; how these changes limit American freedom of action; and how they influence our friends and allies. The question remains: How should the U.S. respond?

First , Washington must insist upon a dialogue with Beijing on nuclear and missile issues, especially its ambitions and intentions. It is unlikely that the Chinese fully share American logic on security issues and a high-level discourse on this matter leading to greater transparency and understanding is critical.

Regrettably, the PRC to date has been unwilling to discuss the Second Artillery in a substantive manner--perhaps so as not to draw attention to its force modernization or be constrained by arms control initiatives.

Resistance by Beijing to engage in a colloquy would make attempts at confidence- and security-building measures unfeasible. The nuclear and missile issue must be made a priority of any security dialogue with Beijing, and China must understand the consequences of its modernization efforts on the United States' decision-making process regarding BMD.

An inexplicable PRC strategic forces and missile buildup will also reinforce the view of the "China threat" in the U.S. and in the region and may create a security dilemma in Asia resulting in an unintended and spiraling arms race with Tokyo, Taipei, and Delhi.

Second , the U.S. must consider strategic arms control with Russia in the context of China. Further reductions in the U.S. ICBM force under START III or any other agreement will increase the ratio of Chinese to U.S. forces and may have an effect on the capacity of American deterrence in Asia.

Washington must not view its arms control initiatives with Moscow in isolation from Beijing's strategic modernization efforts. The U.S. should fully consider the consequences of changes in American nuclear force capability while China is increasing the size and sophistication of its arsenal.

In this regard, Washington must conduct a comprehensive review of its strategic force structure, plans, and policy and undertake a reevaluation of the threat to properly assess the effects on American national security arising from modifications to the nuclear triad. To this end, getting China to affirm its nuclear weapons ceiling is paramount if the United States is to move forward with certain arms control initiatives and further contractions in its force.

Considering the many open questions regarding China's future in the international arena, parity or near nuclear parity with the PRC is not in the U.S. interest at this point. In addition, Washington must also make clear to Moscow that the Kremlin's desire for further reductions in nuclear stockpiles may be tied to Russia's restraint over the transfer of strategic systems or technology to Beijing. Washington must not aid, abet, or tolerate those who assist China's emergence as a nuclear or military peer competitor of the U.S.

Third , the development and deployment of a robust, highly capable American BMD program must go forward with all deliberate speed. Washington should stop denying that there is a link between China's nuclear modernization, conventional missile buildup, and proliferation practices and the requirement for BMD. These issues are related.

Claiming that missile defense is the product wholly of North Korea and other "rogue" states is disingenuous and the Chinese do not believe it anyway. BMD is directed at missiles, be they Iranian, Iraqi--or Chinese. The U.S. must take the appropriate steps now to shape the strategic environment in Asia. Accordingly, a vigorous expression of U.S. concerns regarding China's strategic buildup and a firm statement of Washington's willingness to proceed with a highly effective BMD program may lead Beijing to rethink the utility of its modernization program and proliferation policies.

There is an arms race in Asia and it began with China's buildup of missiles opposite Taiwan. Washington must acknowledge the possibility of conflict with the PRC--especially over the issue of Taiwan, or even North Korea--and plan accordingly for preserving and protecting U.S. national security interests and those of our friends and allies.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese have vociferously condemned American BMD programs as destabilizing and an instrument of American hegemony. But Beijing must comprehend that the development and ultimate deployment of these defensive systems are in part due to China's increased offensive capability and proliferation practices.

In fact, Chinese strategic modernization has been underway for over 15 years and predates the current missile defense debate in Asia. It is further widely asserted that China's strategic force upgrades--including MIRVing--and expansion will proceed regardless of a decision to deploy BMD.

The PRC's international arms control and diplomatic crusade against missile defenses is most likely an effort to deflect attention from the real issue: the direction, scope, and pace of China's strategic nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program and its desire to retain and broaden this asymmetric capability.

Contrary to the assertions of Beijing, a regional arms race will be based upon the deployment of Chinese offensive missiles and the PRC's perceived regional and global ambitions--not the fielding of American ballistic missile defenses. Chinese claims to the contrary are a "red herring."

Changes in Chinese capability, doctrine, and proliferation practices require an appropriate response from the United States to deter and, if necessary, defend against it. There will certainly be consequences to the deployment of American missile defenses, but the cost of inaction to U.S. national security in the face of the evolving Chinese missile threat and proliferation to countries of concern greatly outweighs the cost of action.

The development and deployment of American BMD systems will provide greater freedom of action and a broader range of policy options and potential responses to the American National Command Authorities than our force structure would without them. U.S. strategic forces--including missile defenses--must retain the capability to deter wars, preclude crises from evolving into major conflicts, and to win wars rapidly and decisively should it become necessary.

The PRC is pursuing the power-projection capability to deter, and, if necessary, defeat any adversary in a conventional or nuclear military conflict over resources and territory around China's periphery.

Regrettably, in an era where much international effort has been put into reducing the need for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, China, in spite of its public statements, appears to be moving counter to the times.

As international security talks with Beijing resume after the hiatus that followed the accidental bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade last year by NATO forces, it is time for the United States to bring the arms race being precipitated by Beijing and the Chinese Second Artillery front and center of political-military discussions with the PRC in an effort to stem misperceptions, preclude a dangerous arms race, and ultimately avoid the deadly risk of miscalculation and military conflict.

Peter Brookes is the Principal Adviser for East Asian Affairs with the majority staff of the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives. The views expressed here are his own.


Peter Brookes
Peter Brookes

Former Senior Research Fellow, Center for National Defense