Asia Times: Bush's ABM bombshell: The fallout in Asia
globeAsia Times Online
  January 8, 2002  

Search buttonLetters buttonEditorials buttonMedia/IT buttonAsian Crisis buttonGlobal Economy buttonBusiness Briefs buttonOceania buttonCentral Asia/Russia buttonIndia/Pakistan buttonKoreas buttonJapan buttonSoutheast Asia buttonChina buttonFront button<


Bush's ABM bombshell: The fallout in Asia
By Jing-dong Yuan

On December 13, President George W Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a rather composed response, calling the decision an erroneous one.

This somewhat anti-climactic post-mortem was to be expected, given Russia's assessment of its current position vis-a-vis the US. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Russia can feel fairly comfortable with the development speed and scope of a US missile defense (MD) system. Given the current research and development status for the US project, deployment of an operational system will still require enough lead time to leave Russia's existing and projected strategic deterrence capabilities nearly unaffected over the next five to 10 years. Even with the expected reduction of Russia's strategic nuclear arsenals, the 1,500-2,000 missiles Russia would still possess would include enough highly capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to overwhelm US missile defense systems. The result, as far as Russian strategists are concerned, is that the current strategic balance remains intact.

In light of this understanding and Russia's desire to maintain a good working relationship with the United States, standing against a US decision to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM treaty would make little sense, particularly since Moscow knows full well that the Russian price tag for agreeing to amend, not abrogate, the ABM treaty - the right to approve US tests - would be too high for the Bush administration to accept. Continued opposition to an inevitable unilateral US withdrawal would risk missing the opportunity to build a new type of strategic relationship with the US, one that seeks to codify further reduction of nuclear arsenals of the two countries in some form of verifiable written documentation, if not in treaty format.

China, however, faces a drastically different scenario.

While Beijing's response has been surprisingly muted compared with its persistent and strong stand on the ABM treaty over the past two years, Bush's announcement may well have set in motion a new arms game that could have far-reaching consequences for regional stability and global arms control and non-proliferation. It is critical that the Bush administration be fully aware of the potential fallout from its decision, and that it takes the necessary steps to mitigate the impact of what potentially could be very negative developments in the coming months and years. This requires a cool-headed assessment of what is at stake, where US interests lie and could be adversely affected, and what concrete measures could head off the possibility of an unwelcome chain reaction in Asia and beyond.

Without any doubt, China stands to be the most affected by Bush's decision. For years, Beijing has maintained (and appeared to be content with) a small strategic nuclear deterrence of about 20 or so ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States. Either because of technological hurdles that the Chinese defense industry proved incapable of overcoming or deliberate political decisions in Beijing not to place nuclear modernization high on its policy agenda, the past two decades have seen only slow and measured improvement to China's aging strategic nuclear force of 20-some liquid-fueled, silo-based DF-5As vulnerable to a disarming first strike.

While it is true that China has been modernizing its nuclear forces since the 1980s, the idea that this process will not be impacted by a US decision regarding missile defense is misleading. To date, China's attempts at nuclear modernization have been slow and sporadic. The new-generation, mobile (and therefore more survivable) ICBMs, such as the DF-31s and DF-41s, have been slow in development and testing, let alone serial production and deployment. Among the declared nuclear-weapons states, China possesses the most primitive nuclear force, one that raises questions about the very credibility of its nuclear deterrence.

This explains why Beijing has vehemently opposed US missile defense plans and assigned enormous value to the preservation of the ABM treaty. China is acutely concerned that given the very small size of its strategic nuclear weapons arsenal, even a limited US missile defense system would neutralize its nuclear deterrence. Beijing would be extremely uncomfortable finding itself deprived of the capacity for retaliation and therefore potentially subject to nuclear blackmail.

Additionally, unlike the Clinton administration, which pursued limited MD systems, the Bush administration is looking to deploy potentially unlimited, layered, multiple-basing MD systems capable of intercepting incoming ballistic missiles either during their boost phase, mid-course or in their terminal phase. This creates great uncertainties and potentially higher demands on spending (if China is pushed to develop countermeasures) - dire prospects Beijing finds hard to accept, but for which it nevertheless has to prepare.

While China's immediate response to the US withdrawal may be measured, this early wait-and-see hesitance may soon be replaced with a renewed determination to sustain and improve the current level of deterrence. Unlike Russia, whose hard economic realities may prevent the maintenance of a high floor for its nuclear arsenals (a number larger than the 1,500-2,000 figure proposed by Putin), China may have the economic wherewithal both to speed up its nuclear modernization and significantly expand its strategic nuclear force. China's foreign exchange reserve totals US$170 billion, and the country has raised defense spending by a whopping 17 percent this year alone. Beijing has the resources; the question is how to allocate funding.

Barring successful testing and deployment of submarine-launch ballistic missiles (JL-2), China is likely to increase its number of ICBMs and speed up the development and deployment of mobile, solid-fuel DF-31s. (With a range of 8,000 kilometers, the DF-31 is also capable of carrying MRVed, or multiple re-entry vehicle, warheads.) At the same time, China is developing another next-generation ICBM, the DF-41, with a range of 12,000 km, and the pace could also hasten. The exact number of DF-31s to be deployed will likely depend on the types of missile defenses that the US is going to deploy, the estimated number of ICBMs capable of surviving a first strike and the projected ability of the remaining missiles to penetrate missile defenses with or without penetration aids such as decoys and other countermeasures.

A conservative estimate could well project the number of China's ICBMs into the hundreds within the next 10-15 years or, in other words, expansion to at least 10 times China's current force. The assertion that China is modernizing its nuclear force already and that US missile defenses will not affect this process misses the point. Fallout from US decisions on MD will affect the scale of China's efforts.

This fallout could be severe in several respects and could well affect regional security and stability and global arms control and disarmament, as well as potentially cause misperceptions between China and the United States regarding strategic intents.

In terms of regional security and stability, the expansion of China's nuclear arsenal could provoke a response from India, whose nuclear armament would in turn force Pakistan into a catch-up game, with the result being greater missile proliferation in China and South Asia. Given Indo-Pak tension over Kashmir, the growing influence of fundamentalist elements in Pakistan and the volatile situation in the region as a result of the US war in Afghanistan, an arms race on the subcontinent would be dangerously destabilizing. The growth of the Chinese nuclear missile force could also undermine the credibility of US extended deterrence over Japan and, coupled with the uncertainty over North Korea's nuclear programs, could force Tokyo to reconsider its own nuclear policy.

In other words, an insecure China could wreak havoc that the US may find itself paying a high price to manage.

In terms of global arms control and disarmament, fallout from the US decision could potentially bring the global arms-control process to a complete halt. The most likely casualty is the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). Over the past year, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has not been able to set up an ad hoc working group on the FMCT negotiation because of irreconcilable differences between China and the United States. The US abrogation of the ABM treaty, along with its continuing development and testing of ballistic-missile defenses, further reduces the prospect of pursuing such an endeavor. Without FMCT or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the very fabric of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime could be at risk.

Finally, the potential Chinese responses to the US withdrawal, which include the possibility of China abandoning its own non-proliferation commitments and perhaps sharing countermeasures with other countries, could well generate or reinforce misperceptions regarding China's strategic intentions. Washington, for one, could likely be swayed by the argument that Beijing's nuclear modernization has all along been aimed at either preventing the possibility of US intervention on behalf of Taiwan should China use force against the island, or at challenging core US interests in the Western Pacific. Others may see the expansion of China's nuclear and missile forces alongside its irredentist demands and territorial disputes with its neighbors as a harbinger to aspirations for regional hegemony.

Even though Beijing may in fact be reacting in self-defense and without ulterior motives, a distressing lack of strategic dialogue between key players in the region could well unintentionally push all of them on to unwanted paths.

This is not to deny that some forms of security dialogue do exist between China and most of its major interlocutors: the US, Japan and India among them. What is needed, though, is the kind of strategic dialogue-cum-negotiations developed over the years between the former Soviet Union/Russia and the United States.

A key element of superpower arms-control negotiation during the Cold War years was the development of communication channels aimed at addressing the kinds of misperceptions and miscalculations that could trigger a nuclear exchange. A corollary of that process was the formation of what analysts later lauded as an epistemic community embedded within a culture of hard-nosed, no-nonsense but nevertheless professional exchanges on substantive life-and-death issues in the nuclear age. It is this kind of strategic dialogue that is lacking and needed now.

Chinese officials have on many occasions stated that Beijing's reaction to US missile defense will depend on the kind of strategic political relationship it will have with Washington. The Bush administration is already taking the first critical step by sending the assistant secretary of state for arms control, Avis Bohlen, to Beijing to hold high-level strategic talks.

Assuming both Beijing and Washington regard nuclear weapons and deterrence as instruments aimed at ensuring stability among major powers rather than as tools of coercion, an open dialogue may help absorb conflicts that would otherwise result from misperception and miscalculations. Adequately addressing Chinese concerns (without allowing Beijing to dictate US policy) could also help to avert conflict on these issues.

However, any serious strategic dialogue must demand a minimum degree of reciprocity; transparency on China's part regarding its force structure and views on nuclear deterrence could go a long way toward dispelling regional concerns and discrediting accusations that China hopes to build its capacity to use nuclear blackmail against the US.

The decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty has already been made; but it is never too late to take steps aimed at minimizing negative fallout. Such steps are not only necessary in averting developments that could adversely affect future US interests, but also essential in assuring a long-term environment of global peace and security.

[Jing-dong Yuan, PhD, is a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, California. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.]

(Copyright 2002 Jing-dong Yuan)

Front | China | Southeast Asia | Japan | Koreas | India/Pakistan | Central Asia/Russia | Oceania

Business Briefs | Global Economy | Asian Crisis | Media/IT | Editorials | Letters | Search/Archive

back to the top

©2001 Asia Times Online Co., Ltd.

Room 6301, The Center, 99 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong