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F.A.S. Public Interest Report

Journal of the Federation of American Scientists (F.A.S.)

Volume 52, Number 6   November/December 1999

Article Contents

  • Speak Guardedly and Carry a Missile Shield
  • Republicans Wave a Red Flag
  • China's Response
  • China Could Compromise
[ PIR Sun tag ]PIR Nov./Dec. 1999 Main Page
[ PIR Sun tag ] FAS PIR Index

Bait and Switch:
Is Anti-North Korean Missile Defense Designed for China?

By Charles D. Ferguson

From China's perspective, the competing messages about missile defense emanating from America do not dispel the notion that U.S. plans for limited national missile defense (NMD) and advanced theater missile defense (TMD) are aimed at China as well as the so-called rogues, such as North Korea.

Speak Guardedly and Carry a Missile Shield

The Clinton Administration has been circumspect regarding China's ballistic missiles. In defining the ballistic missile threat, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization's web site neglects to mention China or Russia. However, this web site states, "Strategic ballistic missiles, including intercontinental and submarine launched ballistic missiles (ICBMs and SLBMs) exist in abundance in the world today. In addition, great concern stems from the emergence of a Third World long-range missile threat to the United States." Excluding the U.S., Britain and France, the only other nations with ICBMs and SLBMs are China and Russia.

In a missile threat speech last January, Secretary of Defense William Cohen did not refer to China, but a questioner pressed him by asking, "Secretary McNamara made a very similar speech 32 years ago that you just went through, except he named China as the rogue nation . . . What are your hopes and fears in that line?" Leaving China explicitly out of his answer, Cohen stated, "What we're dealing with here is the question of those nations -- rogue nations [that] could be North Korea, it could be others, who acquire a limited capability that could in fact pose a threat to the American people. We intend to develop, are prepared to develop, a system that would give us that limited type of protection against either the rogue nation or the accidental, unauthorized type of launch."

Republicans Wave a Red Flag

Contrary to the Administration, Republicans have clamored for missile defenses to counter China's ballistic missile force. In the July 8 Wall Street Journal, Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote that the U.S. "must bring Taiwan under a regional missile-defense umbrella that will protect the Taiwanese, and all U.S. allies in the region, from ballistic missile attack by China." Furthermore, he called for scrapping the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and then for "build[ing] and deploy[ing] a system to defend us from the threat of Chinese ballistic missile attack."

In November in his first major foreign policy speech, George W. Bush, the leading Republican presidential candidate, made clear his support of providing Taiwan and other East Asian allies with advanced TMD systems and of deploying an NMD system. He maintained that China "will be unthreatened, but not unchecked." Similarly, Steve Forbes, another Republican presidential candidate, said that a Forbes administration would "deploy state-of-the-art missile defense systems." Further, he emphasized that "we must not allow China's growing nuclear arsenal to continue to threaten American cities and decouple the United States from our allies."

China's Response

With only a couple dozen ICBMs, China recognizes that even a limited American NMD system with 100 interceptors could significantly reduce or negate China's minimal nuclear deterrent. China's military planners have been contemplating a worst-case scenario in which the U.S. could launch a first-strike destroying most of the Chinese ICBMs on the ground because these missiles require several hours to fuel, arm, and launch. Then the U.S. NMD system could shoot down the remnants of China's second-strike missile force.

Trying to prevent potential missile defense systems from being deployed against it, China, along with Russia and Belarus, sponsored in October a draft resolution in the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, calling for "continued efforts to strengthen the [ABM] Treaty and to preserve its integrity and validity so that it remained a cornerstone of global strategic stability and world peace and in promoting further strategic nuclear arms reductions." Moreover, the States Parties should renew efforts "to preserve and strengthen [the treaty] through full and strict compliance." Further, each Party should "limit the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems" and "refrain from the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems for a defense of the territory of its country." On November 5, the First Committee, with the U.S. voting against, approved the draft resolution, which then moved to the General Assembly.

Presaging this action, President Jiang Zemin expressed concern before the Conference on Disarmament last March about the "research, development, deployment, and proliferation of sophisticated anti-missile system[s]." He said that "global strategic equilibrium hinges" on adherence to the ABM Treaty.

In addition to diplomatic pressure, China could accelerate its ICBM modernization. For instance, last August it tested the DF-31, an 8,000 km range (capable of reaching the west coast of the U.S.), solid-fueled (quick launch capability), road-mobile missile and is developing a longer range version called the DF-41. These modern missiles could carry multiple warheads. According to a U.S. Air Force National Air Intelligence Center report, the DF-31 flight test employed decoys, which could help warheads penetrate missile defenses.

China Could Compromise

Despite China's opposition to NMD for the U.S. and TMD for Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, China is not completely against missile defense. In an interview last February in Defense News, Ambassador Sha Zukang, China's Director-General for Arms Control and Disarmament, said that he does not "envisage a dispute concerning development of what [China] call[s] genuine TMD." He was "referring to those anti-theater missile systems used solely in a limited area." He elaborated by saying, "What China is opposed to is the development, deployment, and proliferation of anti-missile systems with potential strategic defense capabilities in the name of TMD that violate the letter and spirit of [the] ABM [Treaty] and go beyond the legitimate self-defense needs of relevant countries."

Perhaps a truly limited U.S. NMD system with no more than 20 interceptors could defend against a North Korean ICBM threat if it ever materialized and be acceptable to China as long as its deterrent is not jeopardized. However, keeping a U.S. NMD system within these limits would be difficult to accomplish.

Before any compromise agreement on missile defense could be reached, both countries need to improve their security ties. Last year, China and America strengthened their relationship through signing hotline and military-maritime safety agreements. Other positive steps could include increased military contacts, prior notices of military maneuvers, and discussing issues of concern at fora. [ PIR Sun tag ]

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