Editor’s note: This piece by Peter W. Rodman appeared in the April 19, 1999, issue of National Review. Rodman, a former senior editor of National Review and senior Defense Department official, passed away Saturday after a fight with leukemia.
As Washington reaches a state of high excitement over Chinese military espionage, another issue looms large over U.S.-China relations, perhaps even more important to our foreign policy: Beijing is escalating its diplomatic campaign against a U.S. decision to provide theater missile defenses to allies and friends in the region.
Today, offensive ballistic missiles offer a kind of poor man’s power projection. China, which still lacks air dominance and a serious amphibious capability, has discovered in ballistic missiles a quick way to gain strategic leverage. The growing Chinese arsenal, plus the more acute danger from North Korea, have led several U.S. allies and friends, quite naturally, to seek theater missile defenses from us. Washington is talking with Tokyo, Seoul, and (more timidly) with Taipei on providing some counter to the challenge they face.
The Chinese hate this. In their full-court press to head it off, they have resurrected arguments that go back to the depths of the Cold War. We hear once again, for example, that the attempt to defend against missiles is itself destabilizing, because it will provoke an offensive arms race or in some other way make conflict more likely. This argument was never completely plausible in the U.S.-Soviet context, and it has certainly not improved with age. It has always seemed more plausible that defenses would make an attack less likely, not more. And in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, our strategic defense programs proved diplomatically in limiting offensive arsenals.
This did not deter Ambassador Sha Zukang, however, China’s top arms control and disarmament official. He told a Washington audience in January that any U.S. missile defense employments, whether here or in Asia, “will have negative impacts on the regional and even global strategic stability.” Other countries would be “forced,” he said, to develop more advanced offensive missiles or to proliferate missile technologies. Western academics sympathetic to this view warn that China will be prompted to deploy MIRVs on its intercontinental missiles. In February, the Financial Times quoted a threat from senior Chinese officials to accelerate China’s transfer of ballistic-missile technology to (unnamed) other countries in retaliation. Beijing has even warned (via the Washington Post) that a provision of defenses to Taiwan would be a casus belli.
We should take this with a grain of salt. China is already expanding its offensive-missile arsenal – reportedly tripling the missiles deployed against Taiwan, for instance-and accelerating its MIRV development. All of this will happen no matter what the United States does about defenses. Nor has China made any offer to refrain from its offensive buildup if the U.S. refrains from defenses. As for becoming an even more ardent proliferator of offensive missile technology, China would hardly enhance its reputation as a responsible international partner if it did so – not to mention that its bargaining position in this regard suffers from its less than complete compliance with earlier assurances given the Clinton Administration.
What is really at stake here is not hardware but geopolitics. China sees the U.S. network of alliances and commitments in the region as inconvenient. What it accepted and even welcomed in the Soviet era it now sees as incompatible with its own vision of the region’s future. This is an important shift in Chinese policy. A government white paper on “China’s National Defense” published last July criticized U.S. military alliances as symptoms of “hegemonic” ambition and “Cold War mentality,” and as a danger to stability.
The U.S. cannot yield to these pressures without paying a huge price. China’s growing offensive-missile capability is a major change in the region’s balance of power; necessitating an American response. If the technology exists to defend against these missiles and the U.S. flinches from providing it to allies and friends on the front line, it will be a severe blow to the confidence of those who have relied on us for 50 years. Our alliance relations might not survive it. And if we were to flinch because of Chinese pressure, the geopolitical implications would be even more profound.
Taiwan is a particularly sensitive case, warranting prudence in how we go about our longstanding policy of helping the island protect itself against the use of force by Beijing. Currently, Taiwan is allowed to purchase an upgraded Patriot system, but no more. This constraint is artificial. A range of options is available, from sea-based systems (which could remain in U.S. hands but be deployed near Taiwan in a crisis) to outright transfer of some advanced system. Under our equally longstanding policy, we are not in the business of promoting Taiwan’s independence. But under the Taiwan Relations Act, we have reserved ourselves the right to provide “arms of a defensive character.” What could be more defensive than missile defenses?
Japan and the Republic of Korea, of course, are treaty allies, and 80,000 U.S troops are stationed in the area. These are no-brainers. The missile threat from North Korea is already clear and present. Here we have no option but to call the Chinese bluff (and it could be that Beijing’s more recent obsessing about defenses for Taiwan is a sign that it is punting on its opposition to defenses elsewhere.)
The Chinese would do well to think hard about how far they want to press their propaganda campaign. A consensus is rapidly forming in the United States – in the administration, the military, and even in academia – that theater missile defenses in Asia are essential. In the region itself, some are thinking that if they cannot acquire defenses, they will need offensive missiles of their own. Could China possibly want this?
Meanwhile, Beijing’s diplomatic effort is reminiscent of the Soviet bluster against NATO’s Euro-missile deployment in 1983; it should be resisted just as firmly. Whether concerning Taiwan or some other U.S. friend, China’s arguments suggest a chutzpah of Dershowitzian proportions. Beijing seems to be saying: How dare you take steps to defend yourselves against the weapons with which we now choose to intimidate you! This is not a proposition that China can seriously expect the United States to accept.