A Look at . . . The China Puzzle

Bates Gill and James Mulvenon
James Mulvenon Director, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis Defense Group, Inc.

March 5, 2000

In just three months, President Clinton plans to make a momentous national security decision?whether and how to go forward with plans to deploy a form of national missile defense, or NMD, by 2005. We support the deployment of such a system but question whether the administration has adequately taken into account the major power that would be most affected by it: China.

The defensive systems under consideration are similar in concept to the 1980s “Star Wars” proposal in that they would seek to destroy incoming ballistic missiles before they could hit the United States. While Star Wars would have been a space-based system aimed at thwarting a massive attack by the Soviet Union, the current proposal envisages land-based interceptors, numbering perhaps between 20 and 200, that would provide a limited defense against small accidental and “rogue” launches.

A scaled-down missile shield would be largely irrelevant to Russia, whose thousands of nuclear warheads could easily overwhelm it. Yet the Clinton administration has spent a good deal of energy reassuring Russia about NMD while making little effort to reassure China?whose few dozen long-range missiles could be thwarted by any of the proposed systems.

This is a mistake, and whether the Clinton administration is focusing on China or not, Chinese strategists are giving serious thought about how to respond.

Early this year, we met in Beijing with military officers and policymakers, and we found them irritated about the missile defense issue. When Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott led a high-level delegation to China last month, he was read a long-standing set of Chinese objections to U.S. missile defense plans in a tough but professional way. However, to really understand how China feels about U.S. plans for a national missile defense, look no further than the one-liner making the rounds of Beijing’s policymaking circles: “What does NMD really stand for? Ni Ma De” (a Chinese expletive about “your mother” not printable in this newspaper).

Some of the Chinese leaders’ alarm can be attributed to military issues related to the viability of their country’s nuclear deterrent. But their principal misgivings have more to do with politics and perceptions than with hardware. In their view, U.S. missile defense plans are aimed at them and signal increased hostility toward China.

Clearly, China cannot be allowed to dictate U.S. national security decisions. But ignoring its concerns?and likely reactions?could jeopardize the security benefits that a national missile defense would be designed to provide.

Consider the troublesome steps China could take if NMD is approved. First, it would almost certainly accelerate the development of systems that could penetrate a missile shield?decoys, shrouded warheads, perhaps multiple warheads. Then, if Washington-Beijing relations were to sour significantly, China might sell these relatively cheap countermeasures to North Korea, Iran, Pakistan or others?rendering America’s costly system either irrelevant or in constant need of upgrades.

China also could choose to speed up its nuclear modernization program in general, possibly staging an aggressive nuclear buildup?something that has not previously occurred in spite of China’s 35-year history as a nuclear power. It would certainly be ironic if a U.S. missile defense actually contributed to more warheads being aimed toward the United States.

China might also speed up military programs that have nothing to do with intercontinental weapons. By building up its force of short- and medium-range nuclear missiles, China could drive a wedge between the United States and its friends in East Asia. Some in Japan and South Korea are already worried that the United States, after installing a national defense system to protect America’s borders, would fold up the “nuclear umbrella” under which it is committed to protect its allies elsewhere. Under such conditions, our allies might seek to build up their own missile and nuclear deterrents, leading to greater instability in the region.

Finally, we should be prepared for Chinese responses to NMD that do not involve nuclear weapons or missiles at all, such as diminishing cooperation on the Korean peninsula or further pressuring Washington about its arms sales to Taiwan.

None of these Chinese reactions are in America’s interests, and the United States should be thinking now about how to prevent or confront them. Over the next year or two, in the likely event that whatever missile shield we choose begins to take shape, we have a window of opportunity. The recent Talbott visit was a step in the right direction, but China’s mixed response to it?especially the untimely and ham-handed release of a white paper pressuring Taiwan to negotiate on reunification?indicates that this important process will not be an easy one.

Just how angry the Chinese are?or how willing to talk seriously about strategic issues?may become more evident later this month, when national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger plans to travel to Beijing. Regardless of Chinese pique, sustained discussions at these senior levels are crucial, because any dialogue that attempts to reassure China about America’s long-term intentions has to cover issues far beyond nuclear weapons.

Such discussions cannot be talk for talk’s sake. First and foremost, the United States needs to strongly convey U.S. interests and expectations as a basis for stabilized relations. Then firm commitments should be made to pursue issues China finds important: permanent normal trade relations with the United States, membership in the World Trade Organization, U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and constraints on nuclear weapons testing and development by India. Even though the Chinese may be skeptical that the Clinton administration can deliver on these items in its waning months, U.S. diplomats need to convey a sense that they are long-term policy goals that will matter beyond November.

As high-level talks continue, we should use them to convince China that it shares our interest in reducing the threat of rogue ballistic missile attack. This is likely to be tricky, since China played a role in developing the strategic weapons programs of North Korea and Pakistan.

On the same note, American diplomats should emphasize the threat of accidental launches. China can be made to see that we have a common cause: The deteriorating command and control of Russian nuclear weapons, and the incipient nature of arsenals in such countries as India, Pakistan and possibly North Korea and Iran, pose potential threats of inadvertent attacks on China as well as on the United States.

We also need to remind China repeatedly that North Korea’s potential to stage a small, deadly launch is a major factor shaping our designs for national missile defense. Thus China, the closest thing North Korea has to an ally, has the ability to influence America’s NMD decisions by helping to stifle Pyongyang’s strategic weapon aspirations.

Finally, we should strive harder to keep China briefed on our ongoing arms control discussions with the Russians. Moscow should not be the first to arrive in Beijing with news of the latest negotiations.

In the end, the Chinese may not be happy with the decision the United States makes on national missile defense, but that is not the point. Rather, we need to be prepared to avert or shape negative Chinese reactions in ways that favor U.S. interests. As long as the missile defense debate focuses largely on military-technical or Russo-centric arguments, the opportunity we have to exercise political, military and diplomatic leverage over China will be wasted.