Missiles and Chinese fears

March 24, 1999

The Los Angeles Times said in an editorial yesterday:

THE United States is probably a decade or more away from being able to deploy a system in East Asia to defend its forces and allies there against low-altitude missiles, but China is already threatening to turn that prospect into a source of contention.

Beijing claims that such a system would provide the Japanese with a protective shield behind which they could develop offensive missiles to threaten China. It further fears seeing its strategic advantage diminished if the United States shares missile defense technology with Taiwan. China's concerns should be weighed carefully, but they should not be a barrier to moving ahead with what the military calls a theater missile defense system, or TMD.

Like its big brother, the national missile defense system, which would seek to defend the United States against limited long-range missile attack, TMD remains a concept in search of realization. Tens of billions of dollars spent on research since the early 1980s have yet to produce an interceptor missile that can knock out an incoming warhead, either at high or low altitudes. The Patriot missile is an anti-aircraft weapon hastily modified to try to defend against Iraq's Scud missiles. It was largely unsuccessful, though improvements have since been made. But the United States is still far from having any kind of effective anti-missile system. That's why Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has tried to calm China by describing TMD as hypothetical.

The Chinese refuse to be mollified. Some in Beijing warn that China could react by exporting more of its missile technology to such countries as Pakistan and Iran. Were Beijing to do that or something equally threatening to U.S. interests, Congress almost certainly would insist on imposing retaliatory measures.

The Chinese government doesn't appear to object to an anti-missile system to protect U.S. troops and bases in Asia. But a big part of that forward deployment would be based in Japan, one of the countries imperiled by North Korea's evolving offensive missile capability.

The task for U.S. diplomacy from this point on is to make clear to Beijing that a local missile defense system deployed to protect Japan, South Korea and U.S. forces in Asia is not a danger to China or a threat to its interests -- so long as China itself does not try to imperil its neighbors.

Pub Date: 3/24/99

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