Russia and China have similar threat perceptions when it comes to the potential impact of U.S. missile defense on their respective nuclear deterrents. While some foreign analysts doubt that the two countries’ concerns are genuine, an in-depth examination of the Chinese understanding of U.S. missile defense reveals that a number of factors—including some serious misperceptions—make China deeply wary of these systems. If the similarities between the Chinese and Russian political systems and their decision-making dynamics are taken into account, as well as their deep mistrust of the United States, it is likely that Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense will be similar to those of China, and these must be adequately addressed.
Common concerns over missile defense
From a technical perspective, Russia and China evaluate the U.S. missile defense threat based on a variety of basic assumptions. The United States could launch a comprehensive disarming first strike, after which only a small number of their respective nuclear weapons would survive. These could then be neutralized by a layered U.S. missile defense system. Major technological breakthroughs such as the potential U.S. development of the multiple kill vehicle and laser interception technology could further improve the efficacy and efficiency of future U.S. missile defense systems.1
Russia’s and China’s deep-rooted political mistrust of the United States causes them to embrace worst-case scenarios. This tendency has only grown over time and leads to concerns over the reliability of their respective nuclear second-strike capabilities. These issues are coupled with the geographical dilemma that both Russia and China are located next to North Korea.2 Any U.S. strategic missile defense system that can intercept North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would also potentially be capable of engaging Russian and Chinese ICBMs launched from North East Asia toward the United States. In addition, U.S. theatre missile defense systems deployed in North East Asia would inevitably affect Chinese and Russian security interests.
Both countries also worry that the United States has been using missile defense cooperation to strengthen its extensive network of alliances. Russia views U.S. deployment of missile defense systems in Romania and Poland as efforts to draw these Eastern European countries closer into the U.S. orbit. From China’s vantage point, the U.S. installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea and the export of missile defense systems to Taiwan and Japan have caused major political difficulties for mainland China. Furthermore, U.S. efforts to engage countries such as Australia and India in missile defense cooperation are viewed as a strategy to bring these countries into the U.S.-led security network.
Such shared concerns serve as the foundation for Russia and China to find areas of common interest, mutual support, and cooperation. Increasingly, the two countries are cooperating to voice strong opposition to U.S. development of strategic and theatre missile defense systems and their deployment close to Russian and Chinese borders. In June 2016, both countries’ presidents issued a joint statement on strengthening global strategic stability and further consolidating their coordination and cooperation against the United States and its allies over missile defense. More substantive cooperation to strengthen their own missile defense capabilities has made rapid progress. The first Russia-China joint missile defense computer simulation exercise took place in 2016 and a second joint exercise has been announced for 2017.
The room for joint Russian-Chinese cooperation is considerable. Russia has already sold advanced air and missile defense systems to China, such as the S-300, and has signed a contract to sell China the S-400. More information sharing about common missile threats and better coordination of each other’s military communication systems is another area for possible cooperation. China is presumably also interested in learning from Russian experiences of developing advanced missile defense countermeasure technologies. In anticipation of increasing tensions with the United States over its missile defense deployment in North East Asia, Chinese experts believe that Russia has a long and positive experience of opposing U.S. missile defence politically on the international stage—and can therefore offer valuable lessons to China.
Despite these convergences, a lack of deep mutual trust remains between Russia and China, which limits the scope and depth of their cooperation. Without being military allies, Chinese experts doubt how far the cooperation can go. Deep cooperation requires full transparency on some of their most sensitive military technologies and a degree of integration of military command and control systems. This is unlikely to occur in the near future. Beyond their borders, both countries have divergent and even competing interests in other parts of the world. Both have developed advanced theatre missile defense systems and are actively marketing them to foreign buyers. In some cases, such as in Turkey, the Russian S-400 and the Chinese HQ-9 systems have become major competitors.
Even more importantly, Russian experts have privately expressed security concerns about China’s rapidly growing medium- and intermediate-range missile capabilities. Russia is aware of the fact that much of its own territory is vulnerable to China’s large stockpile of ballistic and cruise missiles, which might become a threat should bilateral relations deteriorate. Russia also has different security relations with China’s main rivals, such as India. Some believe that China’s development of mid-course ballistic missile defense technology is at least partially driven by the growing missile threat from India, whereas Russia has been cooperating with India on developing advanced missile capabilities.
In the future, Russia and China will continue to take similar measures to counter the perceived threat from U.S. missile defense. Such measures will have significant security implications not only for these countries, but also for other stakeholders in Asia, Europe, and across the globe. Russia and China will continue to strengthen their nuclear capabilities as the most important countermeasure against U.S. missile defense. In this case, China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal makes it even more concerned than Russia, forcing China to undertake more dedicated measures to modernize its nuclear program.
Both countries stress the importance of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles and are working to improve the rapid response capabilities of their nuclear forces. This will have implications for crisis stability. Russian officials have publicly threatened to attack the missile defense assets of the United States and some European countries. Some Chinese experts have made similar threats against THAAD in South Korea. Given that Russian and Chinese analysts tend to downplay the danger of misunderstandings and inadvertent escalation during crises, the risk of miscalculation leading to a regional conflict or war could increase.
A new U.S. president and a new security landscape in Asia make the Russia-China-U.S. trilateral interaction over missile defense more complex. China has been able to avoid direct confrontation with the United States on the issue, while Russia has waged political battles against missile defense in Europe. However, as the Trump administration looks to engage with Russia and North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities drive the United States, South Korea, and Japan to deploy more missile defense systems in North East Asia, the risk of U.S.-Chinese confrontation over missile defense will continue to increase. The 2017 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act mandates the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a layered missile defense system across the globe. Meanwhile, the new U.S. president has surrounded himself with policy advisers deeply committed to missile defense. The future of great power relations is bound to be greatly affected by their decisions on the future of missile defense.
1 Vladimir Pyriev and Vladimir Dvorkin have written that the discontinuation of MKV development indicates the extent to which some U.S. programs continue to receive attention in the Chinese literature even after their demise. Pyriev, V. and Dvorkin, V. (English version, Bubnova, N., ed.), ‘The U.S./NATO program and strategic stability’, Arbatov A. and Dvorkin, V., eds., Missile Defense: Confrontation and Cooperation (Carnegie Moscow Centre: Moscow, 2013), pp. 183–202.
2 China and Russia are also not far away from Iran, another major target of U.S. missile defense deployment.