China and the New U.S. Missile Defense in East Asia

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Proliferation Analysis
U.S. radar sites proposed for East Asia—and ostensibly directed at North Korea—underscore the need for a constructive China-U.S. dialogue on conventional military issues.
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Recent reports indicate that the United States is planning to bolster its ballistic missile defense capabilities in East Asia. In addition to the existing missile defense radar deployed in northern Japan, Washington is now considering placing more radar positions in southern Japan and possibly in the Philippines. According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States would be installing new “powerful early-warning” X-band radar. Although these new installations would ostensibly be directed at the North Korean missile threat—not at China—U.S. intentions are questionable.  To avoid a confrontation, Washington and Beijing should prioritize establishing a constructive dialogue on conventional military issues in addition to the existing strategic nuclear dialogue.  

The U.S. State Department claims that the Asian missile defense systems “are designed to defend against a missile threat from North Korea. They are not directed at China.” If that claim is true, the early-warning radar in Asia should be located around North Korea and along the path a missile launched by Pyongyang would follow. That way, the radar would have a better chance to monitor the missile on its early trajectory. In general, early-warning radar should be stationed as close as possible to the launch site of the threatening missile to gain maximum warning time. Geography can complicate proximate deployments, so these radars are often located further along the probable missile trajectory. A hypothetical North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) targeting the continental United States would go over the North Pole, so northern Japan seems to be a good location to monitor North Korean missiles aimed at the North American continent. Indeed, the first land-based X-band radar in Asia is in northern Japan.

But an early-warning radar installation in southern Japan would add very little to Washington’s capability to monitor North Korean missiles heading toward the continental United States. The new installation’s distance from the North Korean launch sites would be similar to the range of the radar in northern Japan now, but it would not be located along the trajectory of a U.S.-bound missile. The southern site may be useful to monitor North Korean missiles targeting southern Japan and therefore could address regional concerns about the North Korean missile threat, but not direct threats to the United States.

A third radar system in this region deployed in the Philippines would offer no new early-warning benefits. Such an installation would be much further from North Korea and not in the flight path of a North Korean missile targeting sites in the region or the United States.

Furthermore, X-band radar is not the ideal early-warning technology. Early-warning radar needs to search for launched missiles across a wide range of sky; the requirement for tracking accuracy is low. X-band radar, on the other hand, is good at tracking missiles with high accuracy but not at searching a large area. Therefore, X-band radar is typically used for missile defense fire control—that is, tracking and identifying incoming warheads and assessing the success of missile intercepts. For the purpose of fire control, X-band radar is always deployed forward of the intercept engagement point at the midcourse of the missile flight. For example, Adak, Alaska, on the western end of the Aleutian Islands, is a prime location to host X-band fire-control radar for missiles originating in East Asia and heading toward the North American continent.

Within the region, the X-band radar in northern Japan can be useful for intercepting ICBMs during their ascent phase. However, the new deployment of X-band radar in southern Japan and in the Philippines would not work for fire control in intercepting hypothetical North Korean ICBMs targeting the continental United States. The installation in southern Japan may be useful for fire control if the North Korean missiles targeted Japan. But the one in the Philippines would only help if the North Korean missiles targeted Australia, which does not seem to be a real concern today. That means radar in the Philippines would be almost irrelevant to defense against the North Korean missile threat claimed by the U.S. State Department.

This raises a serious question: What is the real target of these new missile defense radar installations in East Asia?

The trajectories of hypothetical ICBMs launched from sites in East Asia (including North Korea, China, and eastern Russia) and headed toward the continental United States are similar. So regardless of where in East Asia the missiles originate, the extension of the array of X-band radar to the south is geographically a bad choice if Washington hopes to protect the U.S. homeland from missile attacks originating in the region. It could be a good choice only if the system is designed for stopping missiles from India heading to the West Coast of the United States. Given the positive nature of U.S.-India strategic relations, that scenario seems unlikely.

That leaves just one probable contingency for which these new radar deployments might be useful.  The planned array of X-band radar in East Asia geographically surrounds Taiwan and could facilitate the interception of Chinese conventional medium-range missiles in the region—the radar installations would be in particularly good locations to monitor missiles launched from southern China heading toward the central Pacific Ocean. Responding to the Wall Street Journal article and despite the U.S. government’s previous statements, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, publically acknowledged that the new radar in southern Japan is designed to both counter China’s military and contain threats from North Korea. This differs from the position expressed by the U.S. State Department and may be closer to the real U.S. intention. The United States has long insisted on being able to project its military power throughout Asia, while China has been building up military capabilities to defend against the projection of U.S. military power on its periphery and against its vital interests. The additional anti-missile capabilities being developed by the United States are, it seems, aimed at countering Beijing’s ability to limit U.S. power projection against China.

General Dempsey’s statement highlights the danger of conventional military confrontation between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region. The new U.S. moves in missile defense deployment in East Asia underscore the need for more constructive U.S.-China dialogue on conventional military issues.

Over the past two decades, China and the United States have developed some useful strategic nuclear dialogues. Although the exchanges have not always been smooth, some mutual understanding and effective exchange channels have been built. For example, the concept of strategic stability is becoming a notion accepted by most participants in the strategic nuclear dialogues between the two countries. Such mutual understanding helps the two sides build confidence in their strategic nuclear relations and could play an important role in preventing destabilizing nuclear developments. However, the United States and China have not yet built mutual understandings on basic principles in the conventional military realm.

In her response to a question about whether the new systems are directed at China, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said, “These are defensive systems. They don’t engage unless missiles have been fired.” This statement raises the question of how a conflict that would lead China to fire missiles against forces on its periphery that in turn prompted the engagement of U.S. missile defenses would start. If missiles are fired, that portends a conflict too late to prevent. Washington and Beijing should therefore make every effort to head off conflicts before they begin by finding cooperative solutions on missile defense issues. 

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Comments (12)

  • John Lone
    2 Recommends
    China is currently a major threat to the region (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and ASEAN), and it will become a serious military threat and confrontational to Russia and India. The whole world is already know Chinese intentions and motives to become total world domination, the Chinese were first illegally invaded and exploited Tibet and Ughur, they are now starting the aggression war into West Philippines Sea and West Japan Sea by absurdly claims historically their territories (China is nothing more than wandering small states formed by war aggression during the Qin +2,000 years ago) the Champa (Vietnam) and Khmer empires were much more advanced, humble, and civilized than those Han flourished throughout West Philippines Sea.
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  • Carl
    powerful analysis and logical argument. Missile Defense is US effort to maintain absolute advantage over any adversary, which is natural for any military build up. Any country that does not share an alliance with US will be on alert.
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    • Robert Chapman replies...
      Another way to view the US radar screen is that the US might be taking more of a role sharing approach to its policy in East Asia.

      Instead of the US maintaining every sort of forces in the area for a unilateral response, could the US be heading more towrad an approach in which it integrates a more limited role with its allies suppling the other force components needed to maintain a strong defense posture?
  • aprilglaspie
    That photo certainly looks like the space travel machine in Contact, How about a caption?
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  • Grabber2012
    The author has clearly confused the floating SBX radar with the X-band radar the WSJ article referred to.   Beclownment ensues.....
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  • rukhbat
    "That leaves just one probable contingency for which these new radar deployments might be useful."
    Because the US has no military presence on, say, Okinawa nor do we have a territory in or around Guam. Nope. No reason to defend those. Please, sir, think a little harder before writing your next article.
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    • Li Bin replies...
      1 Recommend
      Some American experts talk a lot about China's "anti-ship ballistic missiles" that may deny the access of U.S. aircraft carriers into this region. If you mean there is "[n]o reason to defend those," they would disagree with you.
  • Hugo
    Radars are not offensive weapons. Each nation is entitled to self-defense with whatever technology it has available. The U.S. can station radars on its own terrain and wherever its allies will allow it. A radar cannot offensively strike at any nation, its operations create information. Not sure why China would object to a radar.
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    • Li Bin replies...
      4 Recommends
      There is something called security dilemma. When one country deploys some new weapon systems to defend itself, no matter offensive or defensive, other countries may feel threatened and therefore respond by building their own weapons. This is how arms race comes and how the Cold War ran. A good idea is to seek cooperative solution through dialogue.
  • SayanIndia
    If the deployment of X-band radars by United States in author’s opinion is sending “wrong signals”, so is the rampant proliferation of Chinese origin ballistic missiles across Asia often in hands of rouge and failed States.


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  • trev
    You recognize that India could hypothetically be a reason for these systems' placement. I agree that doesn't seem likely, but I understand that Pakistan also has ICBM's, though perhaps not yet capable of achieving such a distance across the pacific. I am curious why Pakistan was not considered as a threat that could warrant the placement of these systems, if India was based on its geography?
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  • Rain Man
    I agree with your main point..."Washington and Beijing should prioritize establishing a constructive dialogue on conventional military issues in addition to the existing strategic nuclear dialogue"...America's addition of a second AN-TPY-2 radar to southern Japan is consistent with its stated missile defense policy and is viable from the Japanese and Chinese perspectives. This radar deployment enhances the U.S. ability to defend the U.S. homeland, especially Hawaii, against the threat of limited ballistic missile attack and also defend
    against missile threats to U.S. forces, allies and partners in the include Okinawa and Guam. This radar deployment does not undermine strategic stability with China. The Japanese are supportive of hosting this second radar site as long as it is politically viable and demonstrates benefit to the defense of
    Japan...and it does. The new radar site is located in southern Japan to cover gaps in the coverage of the existing radar in northern Japan for ballistic missiles heading more southerly trajectory. Additionally, this fixed missile tracking radar will free up limited Aegis BMD ships from tracking duty to position themselves farther downrange for intercept missions. What General Dempsey said was "To strengthen our regional missile defense posture, we are cooperating with Japan and South Korea on missile defense technologies. We are integrating Japanese sensors into our space surveillance network, and cooperating with Australia on space capabilities." Finally, your conclusion is correct "Washington and Beijing should therefore make every effort to head off conflicts before they begin by finding cooperative solutions on missile defense issues"...especially a conflict instigated by North the unpredictable regime in Pyongyang could turn on Beijing...and Beijing will need BMD.
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