The ongoing dispute over the impact of U.S. missile defense on China presents a major and growing challenge to the U.S.-China security relationship. If Beijing’s concerns are left unaddressed, they will likely fuel more intensive Chinese efforts to modernize its nuclear forces and other strategic capabilities. Amid rising great power competition, this dispute and its consequences could severely undermine bilateral strategic stability. Finger pointing has done no good, as the perception gap between the two countries over the motivations behind U.S. missile defense is genuine and deeply rooted.
What have not been as thoroughly examined are the sources of the perception gap and practical ways to bridge it. Significant ambiguities on both sides over their respective technical capabilities and policy deliberations are a main cause of this perception gap. This report identifies three main sets of ambiguities and analyzes how and why they have arisen, so as to provide actionable recommendations on both cooperative and unilateral ways the two countries can tackle them.
The Sources of U.S. and Chinese Ambiguities
The ambiguities that have prompted this missile defense dispute arise from the vagaries of the security concerns that China has cited, a lack of technical clarity about certain U.S. missile defense capabilities and the doctrinal uses and strategic intentions for which they are employed, and uncertainties surrounding Beijing’s inchoate response to U.S. missile defense.
First, it is worth considering how China’s concerns about U.S. missile defense are ambiguous. Expressed Chinese views send a confusing message about why, and to what extent, U.S. missile defense capabilities imperil Chinese interests. There are three main elements to this ambiguity. For one thing, over the past few decades, it is unclear what role missile defense has played in causing China’s heightened anxiety about the credibility of its nuclear deterrent compared with other internal and external factors. For another thing, China has lumped its concerns about its long-range nuclear deterrent together with a wide range of other nuclear and non-nuclear security interests that it believes U.S. missile defense undermines, a conflation that obscures actual key Chinese concerns. Finally, it is hard to distinguish Chinese concerns about the specific military impact of certain missile defense systems from broader concerns about the potential geopolitical implications for the U.S.-led alliance system and the geostrategic landscape of East Asia.
Second, certain U.S. missile defense capabilities and policies are ambiguous in terms of how much they are intended to threaten China and how capable they are of doing so. There are five main aspects to this ambiguity. For starters, Chinese perceptions of inconsistencies in U.S. stated policies create suspicions in Beijing about Washington’s real intentions. It is also unclear to China whether the self-restraint in existing U.S. missile defense policy vis-à-vis China is due to benign strategic intent or economic and technical infeasibility. Beyond that, Beijing seeks to understand whether or to what extent the deployment of U.S. strategic missile defense systems against North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) gives the United States an advantage against Chinese ICBMs.
There are other considerations at play as well. Technological advances may make it increasingly likely that theater missile defense will contribute to strategic missile defense capabilities, further blurring the line between the two. Moreover, the main targets and employment scenarios of the theater-level missile defense capabilities of the United States and its allies are ambiguous: are they mostly aimed at thwarting North Korean missiles or Chinese ones, conventional missiles or nuclear ones? This ambiguity contributes to different expectations of how such capabilities will likely be expanded in the future. Lastly, certain missile defense technologies and U.S. development policies raise Chinese misgivings that U.S. missile defense will obtain growing offensive capabilities and that the future development and employment of such capabilities may be oriented toward an increasingly offensive doctrine.
Third, the Chinese response to U.S. missile defense programs is ambiguous. It is not clear how focused Beijing’s response is on countering specific military threats posed by U.S. defense capabilities as opposed to serving other and more aggressive Chinese security and political goals. There is little in-depth internal discussion in China to define and understand what would constitute sufficient countervailing capabilities. Prominent Chinese experts have proposed counterstrategies, including, in particular, the so-called system penetration or system confrontation approach, which calls for the development of countervailing technologies across the board to systematically exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. Such counterstrategies may appear to U.S. observers to be overly offensive and may seem to imply, correctly or wrongly, an aspiration to engage in comprehensive military competition.
A Road Map to Start Dispelling Distrust
To study and raise awareness of the existence and consequences of these ambiguities could be the first step toward morphing superficial U.S.-China discussions involving the usual talking points into a substantive and effective dialogue. Some ambiguities may not be fully resolvable, due to entrenched geopolitical perspectives, the impact of third parties, and technical and geographical constraints. Yet recognizing that such ambiguities exist and that there are practical challenges to eliminating them might, in itself, mitigate worst-case thinking to some extent.
There are other steps that both sides can take, individually and jointly. China should apply a well-defined and consistent methodology to internal evaluations of external threats. Beijing also needs to discuss in more detail and shed greater light on the underlying assumptions that inform its calculations of what constitute sufficient nuclear retaliation and countervailing capabilities against missile defense. Last of all, the Chinese government ought to clarify the role of its theater-range nuclear missiles.
For its part, the United States should show willingness to study the technical and operational feasibility of drawing clearer distinctions between strategic and theater missile defense systems and between capabilities aimed at North Korea and those affecting China. Washington should also strive to help the Chinese policy community better understand U.S. domestic debates on missile defense policy (at the unclassified level). In addition, the U.S. government ought to consider forging a mutual understanding on no first use of nuclear weapons with China, a commitment that would help address a key Chinese concern that missile defense could better equip the United States to execute a nuclear first strike.
Beyond these individual steps, there is much China and the United States can do together. The two countries should jointly study how existing and emerging technologies can cause inherent ambiguities about objectives and capabilities, help one another develop nuanced understandings of each other’s domestic policy debates and deliberations, and conduct joint substantive research to address genuine technical disagreements using open-source data.
Moreover, Beijing and Washington ought to do more to prevent ambiguous evidence from reinforcing misinterpretations of each other’s intentions and instead work together to evaluate North Korea’s nuclear and missiles capabilities and the potential threats they pose to regional stability. Finally, the two sides should build toward the kinds of confidence-building measures that marked successful episodes of Cold War¬–era U.S.-Soviet arms control cooperation despite a lack of strategic trust. In that spirit, Beijing and Washington should strengthen their political will to support substantive and sustained U.S.-China engagement involving both policy and technical experts to contain the impact of the missile defense dispute on the bilateral relationship.
If left unaddressed, this issue would continue fueling China’s anxiety about its nuclear deterrent and seriously disrupting the stability of the bilateral nuclear relationship. At a time when the world’s existing arms control institutions are falling apart and there are public voices within China calling for massive Chinese nuclear expansion, the need to manage the missile defense dispute and its broader security consequences is becoming all the more urgent.1
This work was made possible by generous financial support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The author is particularly grateful to James Acton, George Perkovich, Brad Roberts, Michael Glosny, William J. Burns, Thomas Carothers, and Jen Psaki for reviewing earlier drafts and providing constructive feedback. He is also thankful to all the anonymous experts who have kindly shared their insights. Carnegie’s communications team helped generously with editing and publishing this research. Ryan DeVries, the main editor of this report, has been extremely helpful in improving the work. Any remaining errors are the responsibility of the author.
1 Hu Xijin, “China Needs to Increase Its Nuclear Warheads to 1,000,” Global Times, May 8, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187766.shtml.