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Testing China’s patience

The planned U.S. test of its national defense missile system Friday was just one more sign of what many in China already suspect — that the United States seeks to “contain” China’s power and influence, and perhaps even prevent its economic success. By Kari Huus.
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Beijing is spitting mad again. The planned U.S. test of its national missile defense (NMD) system Friday was just one more sign of what many in China already suspect — that the United States seeks to “contain” China’s power and influence, and perhaps even prevent its economic success.

China's reaction to the planned test has been fierce and consistent - it bitterly opposes the proposed NMD scheme. If the United States develops NMD, “other countries will be forced to develop more advanced offensive missiles,” China’s top arms control official, Sha Zukang, said in January 1999, a comment widely interpreted as a promise that China would jump into the inevitable arms race.

What does NMD have to do with China anyway? A lot.

What can or will China do about it? That’s the hard part. The Chinese are pulling out all the diplomatic and rhetorical stops to stop NMD. What is more difficult to determine is how much they would beef up their own nuclear and non-nuclear arsenals, at expense to their economy, to counter the United States.

Friday’s test was to demonstrate that a successful missile system can be designed to intercept any attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) against the continental United States — although the results of the test are widely disputed. The stated goal is to defend against “rogue nations” — now more politely referred to as “states of concern.” And to a lesser extent, the system would be there to counter an “inadvertent” missile launches by Russia and China.

But NMD has long been hinged on North Korea, the “state of concern” causing the most concern. Intelligence analysts have predicted that Pyongyang will have the capacity to hit the mainland United States with an ICBM by 2005. And President Bill Clinton is under immediate pressure to decide on the missile plan because defense experts say it would take until 2005 to get it up and running.

But the Chinese, and plenty of other Americans, have a problem with the logic. The United States is the largest donor to hungry North Korea. And in recent weeks, the world has watched as the leader of the “rogue state” came out of seclusion and greeted the president of South Korea - an unprecedented breakthrough in the two nations’ 50-year conflict. It’s getting somewhat harder to see North Korea as a rogue.

And from Beijing’s perspective, the national defense shield looks tailored to counter China’s small arsenal of ICBMs. “We claim it’s really about North Korea, and the Chinese think this is a joke, said Jonathon Pollack, a China expert and senior researcher at the Rand Corporation. “The capabilities it has would definitely be relevant to China.”

It’s not that experts think China was planning a missile attack on its biggest trading partner. But the NMD undermines the whole logic of China’s deterrence and undermines their leverage on other issues. With NMD, “the Chinese fear the United States would be emboldened to do things, vis a vis China, that we normally would not do,” Pollack said.

Diplomatic jockeying
Beijing has been doing what it can diplomatically. With Russia, also fiercely opposed to NMD, China argues that the plan would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which keeps the world’s arsenals at lower levels. China is not a signatory to the treaty, but it benefits from it because it caps what the United States can do and what Chinese feel they have to do in response.

Russia and China spearheaded an initiative at the United Nations to criticize the U.S. plan. In general, China has ramped up all its activities within multilateral institutions - from a regional forum on security issues at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the World Trade Organization. Beijing devotes much of its energy to promoting the idea, in its jargon, of a “multipolar world” - that is, one not dominated by Washington. They see U.S. involvement in Kosovo as a sign that the United States is increasingly throwing its weight around unilaterally. The bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last May, which Washington insists was accidental, drove Beijing and many of its citizens to the conclusion that the United States was trying to hobble China.

The Chinese have implied that, if the United States goes ahead with NMD, they would abrogate other arms control agreements. “They are trying to warn that there are very severe consequences,” Pollack said.

Will China accelerate its own development of arms as a consequence of U.S. defense plans? Here, China experts are widely divided, and so, apparently, is China’s military establishment. In the last three decades, ever since the emergence of reformer Deng Xiaoping, China’s top policy priority has been economic development - the underpinning for its larger notion of taking its place among “great powers” by the middle of the century. And despite a few blips on the screen, military development has been a second priority.

But according to reports on China’s military, while some of the top brass wanted to see military gain top priority, others argued that the United States was trying to lure China into an arms race that would ruin China’s newfound prosperity, much as the Cold War brought down the Soviet economy.

“One argument among those who oppose [the missile defense plan] is that China will be forced into an arms race,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami. “But I doubt China really wants to do this, because it will cost a lot of money.”

There are other dangers, too. If Beijing starts beefing up too much, India and Pakistan could follow suit, further raising tensions in the whole region.

Theater missile defense
A related U.S. plan, the theater missile defense (TMD) system, is frequently mentioned in the same breath - and is equally objectionable to Beijing - because it extends missile defense to U.S. military bases and allies overseas — particularly in Asia.

But there are very important differences between NMD and TMD. Instead of trying to defend a large area against long-range missiles, the TMD (there are two competing plans at the moment) is designed to blow up incoming missiles that are threatening specific sites, such as strategic bases, ports and military facilities. It is a system that is far less difficult to make work.

China objects vociferously to this plan, because it is includes Taiwan under its umbrella. The island has been ruled by a competing government since China’s civil war ended in 1949. Beijing is furious about anything that seems to undermine its efforts to reunite with Taiwan - which it does using both the carrot and the stick.

Beijing’s objections to TMD are different too. Beijing argues that TMD violates its national sovereignty. “We are categorically opposed to TMD,” said China’s premier, Zhu Rongji, while talking to reporters in Rome. “The system would aim to put Taiwan in a sphere of protection. This would be blatant interference in Chinese affairs.”

Beijing may have a tougher time fighting this plan, however. For one thing, TMD apparently doesn’t violate any U.S. treaty obligations. For another, it will be less of a battle in the United States.

By a stroke of fate or of planning, U.S. arms negotiators were in Beijing even as the NMD test was under way, trying on one hand to convince Beijing of the logic of the missile defense plan and, on the other, to persuade Chinese leaders not to sell weapons to nations Washington considers unreliable, such as Pakistan. By all indications, they will have to talk fast to reassure Beijing.