One of the greatest irritants in the U.S.- Japan-China triangular relationship is something
that does not even exist yet. Although it will not be operational until 2007 at the
earliest, the proposed theater missile defense (TMD) system currently under development by
Washington and Tokyo has met with intense Chinese opposition. The pursuit of missile defense
is a "a dangerous act," according to a January 1999 article in China's Liberation Army
Daily, that is motivated by America's "pursuit of strategic superiority and hegemony."
Although China tends to view missile defense as part of a grand strategy for American
domination, the debate in the U.S. is driven by fairly narrow, clear-cut threats.
In July 1998, a Congressional panel, chaired by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
concluded that the U.S. faced a growing danger from emerging ballistic missile programs in
rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
As if to prove the "Rumsfeld report" correct, North Korea test fired a Taepo Dong missile,
which overflew Japan, just one month later. This launch--coupled with memories of 28 U.S.
soldiers killed by a single Iraqi Scud missile during the Gulf War--solidified political
support for theater missile defense (TMD) to protect American troops and allies abroad and
national missile defense (NMD) to defend the U.S. itself.
While NMD is intended to defend against inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of
striking North America, TMD will need to defend against a variety of long-, medium-, and
short-range missiles. In addition to a high-altitude "exo-atmospheric" interceptor, TMD will
incorporate an improved version of the Patriot, the "PAC-3," to intercept shorter-range
missiles, which typically fly at much lower altitudes. Ship-based low- and high-altitude
interceptors are also under development.
Although China is most vocal in its opposition to TMD, it is actually NMD that presents the
greater strategic challenge to Beijing. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, China
has only 20 missiles that can strike the continental United States, each capable of carrying
only a single nuclear warhead. The U.S., by comparison, has up to 6,000 nuclear
weapons--including those carried on land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers--that could
potentially hit China. But even 20 nuclear warheads is enough to make the U.S. think twice
before getting into a serious tangle with China. During the March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis,
Lt. General Xiong Guangkai, the deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army General Staff,
reportedly told a U.S. official that "you [Americans] are not going to threaten us again
because, in the end, you care a lot more about Los Angeles than Taipei." An effective NMD
capability, however, would mean the U.S. might not face such a tradeoff.
The PRC is already hard at work developing new road-mobile, solid-fueled missiles capable of
striking the United States (the PRC successfully tested one of these rockets, the DF-31,
last August) and is researching both multiple warhead and maneuverable warhead technologies,
which are useful for defeating missile defenses. But even though China is modernizing its
missile force, it still wants to avoid the expense of a massive-strike capability, which
would involve hundreds of missiles and divert funds badly needed in other areas of the
TMD is not as strategically significant for China as NMD. Although TMD might reduce China's
ability to psychologically intimidate Taiwan with missile tests, it would not be enough to
counter China's formidable array of short- and intermediate-range missiles. China currently
has about 50 intermediate-range missiles capable of striking the main islands of Japan and
as many as 200 short-range missiles deployed opposite Taiwan.
More Chinese missiles are coming on-line and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimates
the PRC could have as many as 650 short-range rockets capable of striking Taiwan by 2005.
In short, China seems confident that it could easily overwhelm any missile defense system,
especially one extending to Taiwan. "The gap across the Taiwan Strait is only 130 kilometers
so it's difficult for TMD to respond quickly and make an effective intercept," said Luo
Yuan, a strategic expert in China's Military Science Institute, in a recent interview with
the Beijing Youth News, "...even if TMD were able to intercept 80 to 90 percent of ballistic
missiles, given the density of cities, people, transportation hubs, telecommunication hubs,
power grids, and nuclear power stations on Taiwan, only a small number of missiles would
have to get through...".
But, at a fundamental level, China's objections to TMD have little to do with whether the
system will actually succeed in shooting down missiles.Rather, China objects to TMD because 1) it would integrate Taiwan into the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, 2) it further elevates the role of Japan in regional security, and 3) it signals America's intention to strengthen its military presence in the region and prevent China's emergence as the predominant regional leader.
China argues that Taiwan is pursuing TMD for political reasons, namely to improve its
overall relations with the United States.A March 1999 article in the Chinese journal Reunification Forum, says that by seeking to join TMD, Taiwan is "using 'military diplomacy' with the United States to strengthen Taiwan-U.S. relations, secure entry for Taiwan in the U.S. security structure in the Asia-Pacific, internationalize the issue of Taiwan's security, and use foreign forces to insure 'balance' in the Taiwan Strait."
Indeed, it is the close military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan that TMD would
require, more than the actual system itself, that worries the PRC. Since it cancelled its
mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979 (a requirement for normalizing relations with
Beijing), the U.S. has sold weapons to Taiwan for the Taiwanese to operate on their own.
TMD would represent a radical departure from the simple arms-sales approach to Taiwan's
defense. Taiwan's participation in such a region-wide system would most likely require
direct, real-time communications links between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries.
American launch-detection satellites and command and control centers would need to feed
targeting data to interceptors based on Taiwanese soil. It is this "hard-wiring" of Taiwan
into a region-wide network that Beijing claims would be tantamount to making Taiwan a de
facto member of the U.S.-Japan Alliance.
Although Taiwan is the focus of Beijing's opposition to missile defense, China's concerns
about TMD also involve its historical fear of Japan.
In China's eyes, TMD is very much a U.S.-Japan "joint venture." In August, Japan pledged to
contribute 20-30 billion yen for TMD research and development and is, so far, the only Asian
ally to pledge funds.
Coming amid the recent strengthening of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, the current
debate in Japan over possible revision of Article 9, and Japan's decision to develop its own
reconnaissance satellites, China sees TMD as just one part of Japan's overall
More broadly still, TMD represents an American recommitment to the region that threatens to
frustrate China's desire to become a predominant regional leader. From the 1970s to the
early 1990s, as the U.S. reduced troop levels and closed its bases in the Philippines, China
enjoyed a sense that America was slowly pulling out of East Asia. TMD, in the context of the
enhancement of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, is viewed in Beijing as part of the U.S. effort to
grow new roots for itself in East Asia and contain China's rise.
Just as many of China's objections to TMD are political in nature, so too are the potential
consequences should the U.S. and Japan proceed with missile defense. TMD will impact the
overall relationship the U.S. and Japan have with the Middle Kingdom. TMD will heighten the
PRC's sense that it is the victim of an American neo-containment policy. As a result, China
will have a greater motivation to cooperate with Russia, and even France, to restrain U.S.
power. (On December 2, Russia, China, and France all voted in favor of a UN General Assembly
resolution upholding the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and indirectly criticizing U.S.
missile defense plans.)
Japan, however, may have more to lose in terms of Chinese cooperation than the United
States. If TMD is extended to Taiwan, Japan may see its relationship with China further
mired in the Taiwan issue and Tokyo may find Beijing less helpful in critical areas like
North Korea, non-proliferation, and environmental concerns such as acid rain. Also, TMD will
surely harden China's resistance to a permanent seat for Japan on the United Nations
Security Council and, more generally, to Japan's efforts to become a "normal" country with a
more independent foreign and defense policy.
Because TMD is so potentially damaging to U.S.-China and Japan-China relations, does this
mean that Washington and Tokyo should give up on missile defense? Certainly not.
The U.S. and Japan must make policy based on their interests, not on what is acceptable to
the PRC. Although TMD is not meant to be an impenetrable shield, it is still of value,
especially in the Middle East and East Asia where there are "rogue" states with small
ballistic missile arsenals. TMD would reduce the risks of grouping large numbers of troops
and equipment in small areas (the 28 Americans killed in the Iraqi Scud attack were all in a
single barracks) and limit the ability of countries like North Korea to use their nascent
missile forces to blackmail neighbors. There is no question that the U.S. should allow
treaty allies like Japan to participate in TMD if they desire. Building missile defenses to
protect Americans while leaving Japanese vulnerable is a sure way to undermine the
U.S.-Japan Alliance that has been so important for regional stability.
Nor will canceling TMD prevent China from modernizing its missile and nuclear forces. China
will upgrade its capabilities regardless. The People's Liberation Army has been developing
its new DF-31 missile since 1970 and has been working on multiple warhead technology since
the early 1980s, long before TMD became an issue. Also, scrapping TMD will not eliminate the
deeper difficulties in the U.S.-China and Japan-China relationships--including China's fear
of Japanese remilitarization and its growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. "hegemony".
But just because Tokyo and Washington should not let the PRC dictate their decisions on
missile defense does not mean they should simply ignore all of China's concerns and fail to
consider strategies for minimizing the damage vis-a-vis Beijing. Whether the U.S. and Japan
succeed in developing effective missile defense in East Asia while simultaneously avoiding a
major confrontation with the PRC will hinge on how the question of Taiwan's participation in
TMD is handled.
Recently, Chinese leaders have hinted that they might be able to live with TMD so long as
Taiwan is excluded. "Whether or not you build a TMD, that's your business," said Premier Zhu
Rongji in an April 1999 interview with CNN, "But if you were to get Taiwan involved in this
TMD, then China's position is that it would be adamantly opposed to such an action, because
this action would be an intervention in China's internal affairs, as well as a transgression
and encroachment on China's sovereignty."
Similarly, Sha Zukang, the leading Foreign Ministry official in charge of arms control, said
in November that China "does not reject the whole concept of theater missile defense." China
understands the value of TMD for protecting troops, Sha said, but still opposes TMD being
used as a form of national missile defense to protect whole countries.
In fact, China evidently sees potential in missile defense since it is working on its own
TMD technology, including a missile interceptor--the Hongqi-15, which China calls the
"Eastern Patriot"--and, according to some press reports, a laser weapon capable of shooting
The above comments indicate there may be room for a compromise whereby Taiwan remains
officially outside a region-wide TMD system but is still provided with the missile defense
technology it needs. A number of Taiwan military leaders worry that TMD may not be worth the
cost given Taiwan's proximity to China. Indeed, Taiwan's former Minister of National
Defense, Chiang Chung-ling, once described TMD as a "money pit." South Korea, which faces a
similar close-range threat from a Communist neighbor, has shown little interest in
participating in TMD because of similar cost-benefit concerns.
It may make more military and economic sense for Taipei to concentrate on developing, with
U.S. assistance, its own self-contained missile defense system designed specifically for the
Taiwan Strait. In August, Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Fei announced that the military
would build its own anti-missile network regardless of whether it is invited to join TMD.
The U.S. is already helping this effort by providing Patriot missiles and a new
early-warning radar approved for sale last spring. Also, Taiwanese officials claim the U.S.
has agreed to sell four Aegis destroyers, which come with important anti-missile technology.
If Taiwan needs the higher-altitude protection afforded by TMD, sea-based interceptors could
be deployed near Taiwan on American naval ships. This would give Taiwan a credible defense
against missile attack while avoiding the explicit linkages that the PRC finds so
It also goes without saying that China, for its part, should not repeat its reckless missile
tests of 1995 and 1996. If China were to respond to American restraint on TMD with a an
additional buildup of missiles on its side of the Taiwan Strait and more menacing "test"
firings, then any reasons Washington might have to accommodate Chinese concerns would
The whole point of missile defense is to increase security. To the extent that TMD and NMD
can give Americans and Japanese protection from limited threats, such as those posed by
North Korean, then missile defense is a worthwhile effort, even if it causes some strains
with Beijing. But if the United States and Japan proceed to build a TMD network in a way
that guarantees maximum damage to U.S.-China, Japan-China, and Taiwan-China relations, then
missile defense will likely result in a net decrease in security for all involved. Even if
missile defense succeeds beyond expectations, it will not eliminate the need for the U.S.,
Japan, and especially Taiwan to maintain stable relations with China.