China and the Case for Missile Defence

By July 6, 2001 No Comments

In the past five years, the United States has pushed its allies to offer political support for ballistic missile defence (BMD) programs. Among the other issues, the US desires to have its allies become willing to accept the deployment and use of BMD systems – and perhaps to cooperate in the development of the technology. Moreover, while Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) is acceptable, National Missile Defence (NMD) may violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the US signed with the USSR.

The predictable opposition, much of it operating in a knee-jerk fashion, has appeared to the American program. The Peace Movement is lurching about in the traditional manner, declaring (as usual) that self-defence is irrational and immoral, and arguing that money spent on a new technology will be wasted when it could be spent on the usual social causes. The Russians, as surly and bitter as a starving bear can be, seem to be in no mood to humour the American desire to amend or discard the 1972 Treaty. This is despite, or perhaps because of, the hundreds of millions of dollars the US has spent helping the Russians dismantle much of their old Soviet nuclear inventory.

Yet from all the signs, the US might be entirely willing to abrogate the treaty – if not just bend it all out of shape – to develop and deploy a working missile defence system.

There are going to be problems with the development of BMD – even the Peace Movement can’t always be wrong. The project will be expensive (something like $130 billion US has been budgeted so far). While the development of new technologies and weapons systems tends to be costly, no doubt there will be the inevitable peaceful spin-offs that always attend the development of new knowledge. Yet the costs are always up front and potential new civilian products and jobs are at the back-end of the project.

Critics of BMD also allege it won’t work. The same complaint has been heard every time the US develops a new weapons system… the M-1 Tank, the F-117 Stealth Fighter and the Aegis Cruiser were described as expensive and useless boondoggles too. If anyone can make BMD work it would be the Americans, and much of the program is already based on tried and proven systems. Although BMD has a long way to go, in the most recent test of an intercept on a ballistic missile warhead, everything worked – including the ability to differentiate between a warhead and a decoy.

Where critics of BMD are the most wrong is in the inevitable cry that the project will provoke a new “Arms Race”. This is a complaint that has been raised endless times and – as was proved in the last decade of the Cold War – is usually wrong. Totalitarian societies can almost always outstrip democratic nations in raw arms production. Although Nazi Germany’s “military industrial complex” was badly organized, the German military never ran short of weapons and ammunition (they ran out of fuel and manpower first). It should also be remembered that the Soviet Union rivaled the US during 1941-45 in the production of combat aircraft and surpassed them in the production of armoured vehicles and artillery.

Since the Second World War, the liberal democratic nations, where innovation and flexibility are more encouraged, have chosen outstrip totalitarian ones by producing better arms. For example, during the 1950s to the 1980s, the Soviets built more artillery pieces and more tanks than the rest of the world combined. Faced with a massive quantitative inferiority by the mid-1970s, the NATO nations produced hundreds of tanks and field pieces to the thousands of Soviet ones… and produced much better models indeed.

The allegation that the deployment of the Pershing II missile and the Ground Launched Cruise Missile (in response to the Soviet deployments of hundreds of SS-20 missiles in Europe) would also result in an arms race was likewise wrong. Instead, the Soviets realized they couldn’t stay in the intermediate range missile game and folded that hand. Within five years of the NATO deployments, intermediate range nuclear missiles were banned from Europe.

Today’s world lacks the tension of the East-West confrontation of the late Cold War, but that does not mean it is any safer. Canada, for all its pretence at being an international boy scout, has fired more shots in earnest since 1990 than it did between that year and the end of the Korean War.

The US is aware that there are many smaller regional powers that do not love the Western developed nations, and who especially loath America and all of its works. Many of these nations – like Iran, Iraq, Libya or North Korea and Syria have backed lethal terrorism against Western nations, have acquired weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them.

The Americans, with some help from their main allies, are busy developing Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) systems that can knock down incoming tactical or short ranged ballistic missiles and might have a decent shot at knocking down an intermediate or intercontinental range missile. The US Navy’s “Theatre” range BMD system is expected to be able to knock down an ICBM if within easy range of its launch site. One should remember that design range also reflects the speed and trajectory of an incoming missile. Short-range missiles are much slower than long range ones. Even the early Patriot SAM – an air defence missile – was capable (just) of hitting extended range SCUD missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. American/Allied TMD projects like THAAD and MEADS are being adapted to easily handle short-range missiles and perhaps knock down ICBMs in the vulnerable few minutes right after launch.

What is causing the fuss is the American intention to deploy a National Missile Defence System. Admittedly, North Korea is seemingly developing a ballistic missile that just might reach Vancouver, but the threat of ‘Rogue States” (e.g. Iran, Iraq, et, al) with ballistic missiles is a thin one now and probably for the next dozen years or so. The Americans have also discussed the possibility of accidental launches – or deliberate ones by amok commanders. But this threat seems distant too.

So who or what are the Americans really worried about? A smart guess might be China.

A lot of people dismiss the idea that China might be a threat to the United States specifically, and the Western World generally. But then, this opinion also often comes from those who belittled the aggressive nature of the Soviet Union. Moreover, China can present a confusing picture to outside observers. There is the China that is eager to become engaged in the wider world, to trade and build and create. There is the China that is proud of its culture and anxious to display it. There is the eternal China made up of those who, like all the rest of us, want to make their own way in the world and perhaps leave it a little better off for their children.

But then there is the China that strategists see… and listen to. It is overcrowded and needs resources like oil, more arable land and water. Its government must maintain its authority through the relentless exercise of force. Historians should bear in mind that China has always been like this, and the Party Dynasty is no different from its predecessors – all of whom had to behave likewise.

At the same time, while China’s culture is an ancient and distinguished one, the country’s institutions are quite immature. Many Chinese feel, given their strength of their own culture, little need to adhere to Western conventions – but China’s long (and traditional) withdrawal from the rest of the World means that it is often quite unsure how to act. The recent affair resulting from the damaging of a US Navy reconnaissance plane by an inept Chinese fighter pilot provides a case in point.

China believes it should be one of the world’s leading nations in a multi-polar world, and that this is its natural due given the size of its population and economy. This feeling is reinforced by more privately expressed series of opinions inside China that reflect some traditional – and very uncomplimentary – attitudes about Non-Chinese and their natural place in the World. The notion that China is the “Middle Kingdom”, underneath heaven and above everyone else, is far from dead.

Given widely held notions of cultural superiority, a desire to compensate for historical grievances, a craving for stability, a lust for resources, and a traditional expectation of regional hegemony and deference, China is emerging as a twitchy problem for the 21st Century. Also, there is a sizeable body of opinion inside its governing circles that a confrontation with the US is inevitable.

China wants to compete with (or perhaps even defeat) the US, but is a long way from being able to do so with conventional weapons. Notwithstanding its purchases of leading Russian military technologies (and “acquisitions” of American/Western ones), its Navy, Air Force and Army all lag far behind those of the United States in terms of technological and doctrinal quality. The nuclear field remains wide open.

The Chinese understand that if they make a major investment in the strategic nuclear forces, the Americans will have to become deferential. This would give China far more room to act in the manner to which they would like to become accustomed. And, by any reasonable strategic calculation, if the Soviets were truculent actors in the Cold War, the Chinese would be both dangerous and clumsy actors in this new century.

Enter ABM. If China thinks it can turn to a major investment in strategic nuclear weapons in order to play the Great Power Game, they would be extremely disconcerted if the Americans move the goalposts. Moving the goal-posts in the great power game should be worth a couple of hundred billion dollars any decade.