China sees US missile defence plans as a threat, while the US worries about Chinese ballistic missiles. Who's right to be worried?
Missile defence has become an area of controversy in the US-China relationship. The US government sees an enduring role for a range of relatively limited missile intercept capabilities, designed to protect the US homeland, deployed forces, as well as allies and partners by: 1) dissuading other countries from acquiring and deploying ballistic missiles by reducing their perceived value; 2) deterring the use of ballistic missiles by introducing the possibility of operational failure; and 3) defeating a missile attack.
China, by contrast, questions US motives in developing such a system and is particularly concerned with the potential evolution of the technology. The Obama administration has adopted a phased, adaptive approach for missile defence that focuses on countering the more immediate threat – short – and medium-range missiles – while maintaining options for flexible response to future developments. In particular, the United States worries about the development of limited numbers of relatively unsophisticated long-range missiles by a country such as North Korea or Iran.
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The United States will continue developing and deploying PAC-3 batteries, AN/TPY-2 X-band radar, THAAD batteries, as well as SM-3 Block IA interceptors aboard Aegis cruisers. In 5 to 10 years, the United States hopes to deploy the SM-3 Block IIA and possibly the SM-3 Block IIB, which are envisioned to have some capability against longer-range missiles. In addition, 30 ground-based mid-course interceptors – the only deployed system with any capability against long range missiles – will remain at Ft. Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Because of their limited numbers and capabilities, these defences would, even if they worked exactly as designed, have no realistic capability against the large and sophisticated strategic nuclear retaliatory forces of either Russia or China. In East Asia, North Korea, with its large number of deployed short-range missiles and interest in developing long range ballistic missiles, is the primary US concern. However, at the tactical and operational level, the United States is also concerned with China’s declared intention to deploy an anti-access and area denial capability by developing ballistic missiles that would threaten US military forces and assets in the region.
To counter these threats, the United States plans to develop and deploy various defences, including missile interceptors, and to continue its cooperation with key allies and partners. But some in China are concerned that more advanced (or much more numerous) interceptors might threaten their strategic nuclear deterrent. Yet there’s no sign of any US effort to build a defence that would do so. It’s important to the broader relationship that policies on both sides be based on reality, not exaggerated fears, and that neither do things that could give rise to such fears.
Neither the United States nor China wants missile defence, or misperceptions of it, to contribute to crisis instability or an arms race.
China has three primary concerns with US missile defence. First, a mature interception system might undermine China’s second-strike capability. Second, research and development advances in missile defence might lead to technological breakthroughs that China wouldn’t understand the full implications of, and could not easily imitate or negate. Third, developments might yield progress in space technology that would lead to the weaponization of outer space.
While US missile defence systems may not pose a significant threat to Russia’s strategic retaliatory forces, China’s small nuclear arsenal presents a different case. Chinese missiles are quite vulnerable to a US first strike, and those that did survive would be highly susceptible to a mid-course missile defence system – as proposed in a phased adaptive approach – if such a system becomes more sophisticated.
For now, China believes that it’s much less expensive and more effective to develop counter-measures. But even this isn’t an easy task; it requires a high level of technical sophistication to deploy decoys in the right shape and temperature to make them indistinguishable to X-band radars.
Chinese policy makers are also concerned with falling farther behind the United States technologically. Such concerns encouraged China to respond to President Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative by launching the ‘863 Programme,’ or State High-Tech Development Plan. This programme – begun in March 1986 and which continues today – aims to hedge against technological surprise by studying the most advanced science and technology developments with military applications.
China’s 2010 anti-missile test was a response to these worries. Because China doesn’t have early-warning radars or capable space sensors, it doesn’t intend to develop a missile defence system. Instead, the goal is to understand and master hit-to-kill technology. China conducted an anti-satellite test weeks prior so that it could first shoot down a satellite with a more predictable trajectory, increasing China’s confidence in its later anti-missile test. China doesn’t, as some have speculated, intend to develop anti-satellite weapons. Indeed, China has made it quite clear that it seeks to ban all space weapons, and the US rejection of such proposal is another reason that China is concerned with the development of missile defence.
The argument that the US missile defence deployments are, in part, a response to China’s anti-access and area denial capability makes no sense, as such plans were formulated before China’s declared interest in such a capability. Plainly, the United States will continue its missile defence plan regardless of China’s deployments. While China may feel the need to address US concerns regarding its recent military advancement, for the United States, such discussion may be best left outside of the missile defence framework.
Many of China’s concerns with US missile defence are premature and exaggerated: premature because they focus on theoretical possibilities, not what the United States – as demonstrated in official documents and current deployments – is planning to do over the next decade; exaggerated because they greatly underestimate China’s present (and future) technological and industrial capability to offset US defences and thereby maintain China’s second-strike capability.