Why China Hates NMD
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
July 11, 2000
One person who was probably happy to see the U.S. missile defense program's booster rocket fail this weekend was Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. Premier Zhu weighed in on the test by reiterating his government's strong opposition to a U.S. national missile defense program, or NMD. The fluke failure of the booster is easily enough explained, but China's opposition to the idea of a nation defending itself from nuclear-tipped missiles probably deserves more elaboration.
For all the talk about first-strike capabilities in the context of a suicidal nuclear exchange, what is at issue for the Chinese is an exceedingly local obsession -- Taiwan.
China's real concern is not fighting an all-out nuclear war with the U.S., but preventing America from coming to the defense of Taiwan. It should be added, incidentally, that as China sees it, a U.S. missile-defense might cause China to lose much of the political leverage it has gained over the U.S. by professing to keep North Korea's missiles in check and by stirring the strategic weapons pot through exports of missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.
Taiwan is the real concern, though. If Chinese leaders do decide to use force to take over the "renegade province," under any scenario they will need to establish air and sea superiority. That is impossible if American aircraft carriers take up positions in the Taiwan Strait. And so neutralizing America's will to fight with nuclear threats is a top priority.
China has given the U.S. a taste of such threats. In 1995 Chinese General Xiong Guangkai told an American envoy, "In the end, you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei." This year an official newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, warned that a defense of Taiwan could lead to missile attacks on the U.S.
Are such threats credible? Taking out an American city or military base would expose China to annihilation, so they seem ludicrous at first glance. But that's not the whole story. The art of intimidation requires convincing one's opponent that you are crazy enough that you should be given a wide berth. Particularly on the highly emotive Taiwan issue, China has cultivated the Western belief that hard-liners in the military are just barely under control. The message is that they might initiate a nuclear strike if the U.S. isn't careful.
That threat of a hothead with his finger on the button becomes less credible with missile defense. China would have to calculate that the U.S. would be more willing to risk an escalation of conflict in the Taiwan Strait with a partial missile shield in place. And according to all estimates, China would lose a conventional war against Taiwan, even if it did manage to severely damage the island's economy. That calculus discourages China from belligerent behavior.
So even though NMD is not aimed at depriving China of any nuclear deterrent, it would have important benefits in restraining its behavior and enhancing the security of East Asia. The firing of dummy warheads into the sea off Taiwan in 1995 and '96 was an indication that China is prepared to use violent means to retake the island. Deterrence is a live issue.
Will Beijing underestimate American resolve to come to Taiwan's defense? Since sending aircraft carriers to Taiwan in 1996, the Clinton Administration has done little to dispel Chinese overconfidence. Pressing ahead with NMD would be a useful corrective, as is holding on to the possibility of deploying a theater missile defense in Taiwan. It's encouraging that State Department negotiator John Holum used this possibility in Beijing last week in response to the threat of medium-range missiles now being positioned on the coast of Fujian province.
Far from showing why the U.S. shouldn't deploy missile defenses, Premier Zhu's protestations were a good indication that missile defense can change China's behavior. America and its allies in Asia will likely need such protection.