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Asia's overlooked missile crisis
By Stephen Blank

For the past 18 months international attention has been riveted on the "war on terrorism", Indo-Pakistani tensions, Iraq, and perhaps intermittently on North Korea's nuclear program. However, neither these issues nor even Iran's likely nuclear program exhausts the crises or challenges that threaten security in Asia. We should not forget, for example, that before September 11, 2001, US military planners had all but singled out China as a likely enemy and specifically referred to the possibility of a clash over Taiwan in major US strategic pronouncements.

While there have been no tensions over Taiwan for more than two years now, that does not mean China's and Taiwan's military buildup has ceased. Indeed, quite the contrary is taking place, and this buildup reflects trends that are taking place across Asia more generally.

China has quietly continued its steady quantitative and qualitative buildup of missiles facing Taiwan. Each year, according to US observers, it adds about 50 more short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to its arsenal facing Taiwan. Jane's Intelligence Review reported as well that in December 2002 China also tested successfully for the first time a medium-range missile with multiple warheads, the DF-21, giving it a capability it had hitherto lacked. Possession of a usable capability for launching and controlling missiles with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) whose target range is about 1,800 kilometers gives China a new capability with which to threaten not just Taiwan but also the United States. Meanwhile China's overall buildup of conventional, nuclear, and space capabilities is clearly focused on both intimidating Taiwan and deterring the United States from coming to its defense.

While it is arguable that these recent tests are a way of countering the forthcoming US theater and national missile defense systems (TMD and NMD respectively), these tests and the concurrent development of a still longer-range missile, the DF-31, have long been anticipated by observers of China's military and fit in with the overall pace of Chinese modernization efforts and strategy. However, China's missile programs have stimulated Taiwan to reply by launching its own missile defense program. Tang Yao-ming, Taiwan's minister of defense, stated in February that by 2013 Taiwan expects to have usable missile defense capabilities to defend effectively against China's ballistic missiles. While it is working currently on land-based sensors, acquisition of US Kidd-class submarines will permit it to begin developing a sea-based capability as well. And present plans call for ultimately acquiring even an airborne capability as well. It should also be pointed out that the United States is encouraging this new program.

These trends add to the worries generated by North Korea's nuclear program, which is leading Japan to deepen its collaboration with the United States on middle defenses. But beyond that, Japan is also expanding the framework under which it will be able to undertake military action either on its own or with the US. For example, planning has begun on a satellite-based early-warning system that could allow Japan an independent source of intelligence on incoming missiles apart from that provided by the United States. It goes without saying that these developments have clearly alarmed Beijing and contributed to its dismay over the North Korean program. But there is no sign that it is rethinking its own defense policies that stimulated Taiwan's, America's, and Japan's efforts at missile defense.

Neither do these trends stop here. South Korea recently commissioned the Lockheed-Martin Corp to deliver it an Aegis ship-warfare system for its navy to enable it to defend against missiles using sea-based sensors. Likewise, India, facing Chinese proliferation to Pakistan, Pakistan's nuclear and conventional missile capability and China's growing missile capabilities that, like the DF-21, can target Indian cities, has begun to work toward its own defense. On the one hand it is studying what it can do based on its own considerable indigenous capabilities. On the other hand it has begun discussions with Israel about a joint Indo-Israeli program based on the export of the US-Israeli Arrow missile defense program. Since the Arrow has already been successfully flight-tested and Israel has apparently won the right to export it to countries approved by the United States, there is a real possibility that this cooperation may deepen. Indeed, both Turkey and India want the system and efforts are under way to persuade Washington to permit such joint programs or exports.

These developments show that not only is the "war on terrorism" transforming international security but that Asia's other challenges are leading to utterly new strategic relationships, force structures and to the possibility of multiple races between missiles and missile defenses. The latter also clearly entail further militarization of space, a fact that is pointed out here not as criticism but as fact. No missile defense system currently envisaged for ballistic missiles can function without having at least sensors in space relaying intelligence back to stations on earth either on land or at sea. It also looks as if these strategic developments are taking place in essence on a unilateral or bilateral basis with little thought to the shape of the ensuing overall strategic environment across Asia. However, as current attention is focused elsewhere, it seems unlikely that any serious effort to deal with the repercussions of this trend will emerge for some time. By then this strategic situation will have become entrenched and much less flexible because it will involve multiple players and regions throughout Asia. Thus it will be more difficult to achieve meaningful reduction of missiles, defenses and the interstate tensions that contribute to these buildups.

The absence of any sense of long-range thinking should alarm us because all this is happening almost as if it were a machine proceeding automatically. And if we have learned anything about international security, nuclear weapons, and the defenses to them, it is that putting vital strategic issues on automatic pilot is never a recipe for good strategy or for good policy.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Jun 17, 2003

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