Given the difficulty of achieving the complete denuclearization of North Korea in the near term, the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific have strong incentives to continue building their missile defense capabilities. This trend is clearly reflected in the 2019 U.S. Missile Defense Review report and in recent defense developments in countries like Japan and South Korea. Whereas the United States considers missile defense necessary to mitigate the nuclear threat from North Korea, China sees it as a U.S. strategy to disrupt the regional balance of power and undermine its nuclear deterrent capability. These apparently irreconcilable perceptual gaps are not only complicating the development of a shared North Korea denuclearization strategy but more importantly are also leading to increased tensions in the U.S.-China strategic relationship.
Tong Zhao moderated a discussion with Li Bin on their recent research on various ambiguities in U.S. missile defense developments, China’s threat perception toward the United States, and Chinese defense countermeasures. They explored what steps can be taken to lessen the security dilemmas created by ongoing missile defense disputes, while Fan Jishe, Duan Zhanyuan, and Zhang Hongyu discussed the findings and analyzed the relevant policy implications.
This event was off the record.
- U.S.-China Security Relations: The 2007 U.S. National Security Strategy identified China as a rival power competing for global influence, a conclusion that both the 2019 Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review and 2019 Missile Defense Review reiterated and expanded on. The Nuclear Posture Review mentioned the risk that China’s military could take coercive measures against regional U.S. forces, while the Missile Defense Review expressed concern about China’s possible intent to displace the United States in the Asia-Pacific. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has focused on security objectives related to Russia and the Middle East. Now, however, U.S. officials largely perceive China as a growing threat in East Asia, and systems like THAAD are designed to calm the fears of and further strengthen relations with regional U.S. allies.
U.S. Policy Ambiguities: The panelists argued that the intentions of the U.S. missile defense program are ambiguous. One discussant explained that while U.S. officials explicitly state that the missile systems provide defense against “rogue regimes” such as North Korea and Iran, they could also be directed at China. Another panelist agreed that Beijing has legitimate cause for concern about regional U.S. missile defense buildup. In the case of preemptive U.S. strikes against China, Beijing would only be able to counter with severely weakened missile capabilities. As the United States develops satellites, radars, and other technologies, the targets of its missile systems also remain unclear; missiles that can reach North Korea may operate within range of northeast China. A panelist added that the U.S. defense systems could be used to intercept nuclear as well as conventional weapons. The discussants also noted that U.S. multifunctional missile defense systems could be used for offensive purposes.
- Respective Defense Capabilities: China’s nuclear arsenal has grown in quantity, but not necessarily in quality, as compared with that of the United States. During the Cold War arms race between the United States and Soviet Union in the 1980s, Washington built up its missile interception capacity in response to Moscow’s capabilities. Beijing, however, retained a low level of defense and was confident in its ability to survive potential nuclear war, given that it would likely not have been a target, the panelists noted. The world entered a period of relative calm in terms of arms control with the 1987 INF treaty and subsequent agreements to limit the growth and spread of nuclear programs. But the United States recently withdrew from the INF treaty and has ignored international criticism about its deployment of missile systems like THAAD, threatening the near-thirty year period of arms control stability. China must now reassess the quantity and quality of its weapons; China’s A2/AD systems pose a threat to U.S. military maneuverability in the Asia-Pacific region, but its ICBM and SM-3 missile systems lag behind their Western analogues.
- Recommendations for China: The panelists said they hoped that China will ask questions to clarify U.S. intentions with regard to missile defense. One panelist said that U.S. missile defense systems will certainly impact geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific, but the effects are still unclear. China must figure out what constitutes reliable nuclear deterrence relative to the U.S. systems and how to build up its defense technologies; it must also address questions of how to finance the systems. In addition, Beijing must discuss whether and how to respond to U.S. “left of launch” strategies and whether it would react with a small-scale or all-out attack. The discussants said that although the United States seems to have turned toward great power politics under the Trump administration, it should use missiles strictly for security purposes.
Uncertain Future: Given the ambiguities of U.S. missile defense in the Asia-Pacific and China’s conservative approach, the future of strategic stability in the region remains uncertain. Historically, China has tried to keep pace with competitors when new missile defense technologies become available, and it should continue to do so, one discussant said. Another panelist noted that China must make alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. The effectiveness of the Chinese missile defense program is hard to gauge given the ambiguities in U.S. strategy. As China grows its defense capacity and the United States moves toward more a confrontational approach toward China, stability in the region could be disrupted. While the panelists agreed that war remains a possibility, they said it is still possible to return to a stable, balanced East Asian security framework through peaceful dialogue.
Tong Zhao is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
Li Bin is a senior fellow working jointly in the Nuclear Policy Program and the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Fan Jishe is a researcher at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Duan Zhanyuan is a member of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
Zhang Hongyu is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.