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Manipulate or proliferate

Tribune-Review
| Tuesday, September 4, 2001 12:00 a.m

Much has been made of the nascent relationship between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin and how they will resolve their differences over the U.S. plans for a national missile defense system. But on the sidelines sits China. Beijing may actually have more to fear than Moscow.

As a rising regional and even global economic powerhouse, China’s relations with the United States during the coming decades have the potential to shape the global system nearly as much as the Soviet Union’s did in the past. If China can maintain political and social stability, it may be able to use its economic successes to reduce the technological gap between its armed forces and those of the United States. And whether Washington effectively develops and deploys missile defense systems will impact the direction of China’s military modernization.

Beijing has three overriding fears concerning Washington’s efforts to build national and theater missile defenses:

  • First, with its limited nuclear arsenal, China would lose its strategic deterrent against the United States should a national missile defense shield actually pan out.

  • Second, Beijing believes much of Washington’s motivation is to spur a major increase in Chinese arms expenditures, which would bankrupt China in the same way that the Cold War arms race bankrupted the former Soviet Union.

  • And finally, Beijing sees a theater missile defense deployment in Taiwan as its most immediate problem, for such a system would cause China to lose any military superiority over its ”breakaway province,” likely emboldening independence forces on the island.

    STIRRING THINGS UP

    China’s primary objective in blocking the development and deployment of any missile defense systems is to raise opposition among America’s allies. If it fails with this strategy, the Chinese military will direct its attention to overcoming regional systems by targeting Taiwan and U.S. forces in Asia with massive improved missile forces.

    China has long argued against Washington’s missile defense plans, saying they will do more harm than good by spurring another global arms race, increasing missile proliferation and inducing formerly non-nuclear nations to research and develop atomic weapons. Yet there is little Beijing can do right now to counter U.S. plans.

    China has only a few nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, between 20 and 22 by most accounts. Building up a substantial arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles is not an economically feasible option for China now. It claims impressive economic growth rates, but China still struggles with massive unemployment and underemployment as well as potentially divisive regional disparities in wealth and the legacy of an inefficient state-run economy.

    Rather than fall into Washington’s ”trap,” where they spend themselves itself into bankruptcy playing catch-up, Beijing will try to prevent a missile defense system from being built in the first place. The Chinese government and military have a three-pronged plan to achieve this.

    THE STRATEGY

    The government will first appeal to Washington’s already wary allies not to back a system that is likely to contribute to another global arms race. Chinese officials – including President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and National People’s Congress Chairman Li Peng – have taken Beijing’s warnings to the international arena, including presentations to the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and European, Asian and other nations.

    Beijing will also undermine Washington’s justification for missile defense by reducing missile exports to ”rogue nations” while simultaneously increasing diplomatic and economic contact with them. For instance China brought North Korea out of isolation and influenced Pyongyang’s self-proclaimed moratorium on long-range missile testing.

    Beijing also reduced its missile exports to other nations including Pakistan and Iran and last year signed an agreement with Washington to stop exports of missile parts and technologies in return for a waiver on sanctions that blocked technology transfers to China.

    Last, the regime will adopt the role of a reluctant threat, laying out that national and theater missile defense would force China to boost its own missile and nuclear stocks and perhaps those of others as well. Yet despite Beijing’s efforts, the United States appears prepared to pursue missile defenses with or without international support.

    THE FALLOUT

    This leaves the Chinese government with only a secondary hope that the next U.S. administration finds the system too costly, either in economic or international relations terms, and discontinues development. But barring a change of heart in Washington, Chinese officials then must prepare for what may be inevitable.

    In the near term, Beijing will redirect its attention closer to home. Countering theater missile shields in Taiwan, Japan and perhaps India will be easier and less costly than regaining its nuclear deterrent by building more missiles to target the United States.

    China already has more than 350 short-range missiles within range of Taiwan, according to the latest U.S. estimates, and the number is expected to grow to 600 by 2005. The Chinese military will rapidly expand and improve its short- and medium-range missiles to overwhelm theater, or local, missile defenses.

    Although China would no longer be assured of counter-strike capabilities against Los Angeles or Seattle, for example, it would instead direct its missiles against Okinawa, where 26,000 U.S. troops are stationed, or other bases in Japan or Korea. By targeting U.S. forces in the region, as well as Taiwan, Beijing could regain some of the strategic deterrence it might loose in the face of missile defenses.

    Ultimately, Beijing’s top priority is to stop U.S. missile defenses from ever becoming a reality. Chinese officials are actively trying to portray the United States as the real ”rogue” nation for developing missile shields that would give Washington the ability to threaten other nations with nuclear strikes without risking retaliation.

    But whether Washington abandons missile defenses or not, an increase in China’s short- and medium-range missile forces appears inevitable in the coming decades.

    The writer is an analyst for Stratfor, the global intelligence company. Visit its Web site at: www.stratfor.com .

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