Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 43, January - February 2000

US Missile Defence Plans: China's View
By Ambassador Sha Zukang


With the arrival of the new century, the United States has markedly stepped up its National Missile Defence (NMD) programme. In January 1999, the US Secretary of Defense announced an increase of US$6.6 billion for the programme. Last July, President Clinton signed the 1999 Act on National Missile Defense as adopted by the US Congress, thus making the development of NMD a national policy of the US Government. Last October and again in January, two NMD interception tests were conducted. Recently, the US Defense Department proposed another increase of US$2.2 billion for the programme. Another interception test is planned for the northern spring, and President Clinton is scheduled to make his decision this northern summer on whether to go ahead with the deployment of the NMD system.

Such an accelerated pace of NMD development at the turn of the century is based on profound and far-reaching strategic considerations. The real motive of the US Government is to make use of the country's unrivalled economic and technological might to grab the strategic high ground for the 21st century in both the scientific and military fields, so as to break the existing global strategic balance, seek absolute security for itself and realise its ambition for world domination.A

Upsetting the Status Quo

In today's international political parlance, the United States is often regarded as a 'status quo' country, which stands for stability. However, with the proposed NMD programme the United States threatens to disrupt the international status quo. Since the end of World War II, the world has undergone tremendous changes. Yet, there is one important factor that has remained constant in the ever-shifting global strategic landscape: a certain degree of deterrence - along with strategic checks and balances - has always existed in the inter-relationships between the major powers. No single country is strong enough to believe that it can use force to threaten the security of others without having to worry about the threat of retaliation. Some see this as an important reason why, despite all the fluctuations and turmoil in the world, a general peace has been maintained and world wars avoided in the last 50 years. However, as the only superpower with economic, technological and military capabilities that remain unmatched by any other country (especially given its sustained economic boom over the last decade) the United States seems to be less and less satisfied with the status quo in international relations. What it wants is absolute security, because it is only from a position of absolute security that it can enjoy complete freedom of action in dealing with other countries. The US Government and Congress have found in NMD the best means to deliver this.

It is for these reasons that the United States, despite all the scientific and technical difficulties and universal opposition from the international community (including some of its allies), has insisted on the development of NMD and thrown so much money into this highly controversial programme.

US Strategy Driving NMD

In order to conceal its real motive, the United States has come up with an almost absurd pretext: the missile threat from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is despite the fact that no-one with any common sense believes that the DPRK's crude missile capabilities constitute any threat to US territory in the foreseeable future, that the negotiations between the United States and the DPRK on nuclear and missile issues have been making sustained - albeit gradual - progress, and that almost everybody else believes that there are better and more cost-effective means to address the DPRK missile issue than that of NMD.B

No-one would deny that when it comes to nuclear arms control the United States pursues a well-calculated strategy, though some would further argue that it is a selfish strategy tinged with wishful-thinking. The elements of this strategy are: firstly, to reduce Russia's huge nuclear arsenal through bilateral negotiations (and assistance); secondly, to prevent the flow of nuclear technology and material into the hands of "rogue states" through non-proliferation; thirdly, to qualitatively freeze the nuclear weapon technology of the medium- and small-sized nuclear-weapon States (NWS) and threshold nuclear States (TNS) through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); fourthly, to quantitatively cap the quantity of the nuclear weapons of these states through a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT); and fifthly, to immunize itself from external threats through NMD. All this is for one purpose only; to reinforce US nuclear superiority. Last but not least, we should certainly not forget that as a self-styled world leader the United States will, for all time, reserve its right to teach, or, if needs be, to threaten other countries militarily. This means that such a US policy, which allows it to be the first to use nuclear weapons, would not be abandoned under any circumstances. And so the nuclear sabre rattles on!

At the same time, the United States should not be so naive as to believe that the implementation of such a strategy will all be smooth sailing. In addition to any technical or financial constraints (although money can hardly be a problem for the world's only superpower), the NMD programme will most definitely be challenged by other countries, and is bound to adversely affect the realisation of other objectives within the United States' well-calculated strategy. As the saying goes, 'you can't have your cake and eat it'.

NMD & the ABM Treaty

To clear the legal obstacles on its path to NMD deployment, the United States has insisted on the amendment of the 1972 ABM Treaty, and even threatens to withdraw from the Treaty. Russia is firmly opposed to either option and has made it clear that if the United States withdraws from the ABM Treaty, Russia will withdraw from the INF Treaty and the START-I and START-II treaties, and will take other effective counter-measures. One wonders if it is really in the security interests of the United States to defend itself against the remote possibility of the threat of a few missiles being launched from "rogue states" at the price of affecting or even ruining the clear and present prospect of eliminating thousands of Russia's strategic weapons?

The US NMD programme will also seriously undermine the international non-proliferation regime. Nuclear disarmament is the basis for the non-nuclear commitment undertaken by non-nuclear-weapon States (NNWS). To develop and deploy NMD will remove the basis for nuclear arms reduction and disarmament, and will, in turn, undermine the support of the vast number of NNWS for the international non-proliferation regime. Non-proliferation is dependent on the common efforts of the international community. It can only succeed within the framework of co-operative security. US efforts to seek its own absolute security to the detriment of the security of others have poisoned the atmosphere of international co-operation in the field of non-proliferation, which will ultimately undermine its own security.

Though the US Government has publicly denied that China is a major target of its NMD programme, the history of missile defence programmes and the acknowledged design capabilities of NMD show that the proposed system can be directed against China and can seriously affect China's limited nuclear capability. Some advocates of NMD have not minced their words in this respect. As a peace-loving country China has not participated, and will not participate, in any arms race with any country. However, in a world where hegemonism and power politics run rampant, and as a sovereign country, China cannot afford to sit on its hands without taking the necessary measures while its strategic interests are being jeopardised. China, inter alia, may be forced to review the arms control and non-proliferation policies it has adopted since the end of the Cold War in light of new developments in the international situation.C

Missile Defence & North East Asia

Apart from developing NMD and preparing for its deployment, the United States is also busy developing advanced "Theater Missile Defense" (TMD) systems and preparing to proliferate them around the world. In North-East Asia, the United States and Japan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the joint development of advanced TMD systems last September. This is also a disturbing event.

Firstly, technically speaking, advanced TMD and NMD systems are closely intertwined. Some advanced TMD systems in development already have the potential to intercept strategic missiles. Such systems, once deployed in North-East Asia, will turn the region into the forefront of the US NMD system. Secondly, to introduce advanced TMD systems into North-East Asia will further enhance US capabilities to interfere in regional affairs. This is particularly alarming against the backdrop of NATO expansion, NATO's new strategic concept and the growing propensity of the US to use military force in international affairs. Thirdly, the US-Japanese joint development of TMD systems will accelerate Japan's pace of re-militarisation. Japan's defence budget ranks second in the world after the US. It is already a strong military power with powerful maritime, ground and air forces. In September 1997, Japan and the United States signed their amended Defense Cooperation Guidelines, which expanded the defence area of their alliance to neighbouring areas.

Recently, politicians in Japan again called for changes in Japan's military strategy from "exclusive defense" to a "pre-emptive strategy", and some are even clamouring for the amendment of Japan's "Peace Constitution". To provide Japan with advanced TMD systems at this point will further strengthen Japan's military capability and will certainly make East Asian countries that once suffered from Japanese militarism more anxious and alert. Fourthly, US-Japanese co-operation on TMD will not contribute to resolving the nuclear and missile crises on the Korean peninsular. The fundamental way to address such crises is through co-operation and dialogue. The US-Japanese joint development of TMD systems will only exacerbate the confrontation among the relevant countries, and affect the current momentum of relaxation of tension on the peninsula. This is in no-one's interests. Last but not least, missile defence and missile technologies are mutually convertible. The US-Japanese joint development of missile defence systems means the proliferation of advanced missile equipment and related technologies. This is an open violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which the United States has so vehemently advocated.

Last year, the 54th UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Resolution on Preservation of and Compliance with the ABM Treaty, co-sponsored by Belarus, China and Russia. It called for renewed efforts by the countries concerned to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty through full and strict compliance, to refrain from the deployment of ABM systems for the defence of the territory of its country, and not to transfer to other states ABM systems or components limited by the Treaty. This was a collective appeal by the international community to the United States. Though the US track record on heeding the appeals of others is far from encouraging, we still hope, against hope, that this may be an exception, and that the US will demonstrate leadership by making a wise choice when the time comes.D

China also has another special concern in the region: the transfer of TMD systems from the US to Taiwan. US arms sales to Taiwan are the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-US relations. On August 17, 1982, the Chinese and US governments issued a joint communiqué in which the US stated that it did not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan would not exceed - either in qualitative or in quantitative terms - the level of those supplied in the years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, and that it intended to gradually reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution. However, for some time the US has, with various untenable excuses, refused to honour its commitment. Recently, the US Government envisaged sales of PAC-III ground equipment to Taiwan, and it is reported that President Clinton is considering the sale of military equipment including the Aegis system to Taiwan before leaving office. This has aroused serious concern within the Chinese Government. The US transfer of TMD systems to Taiwan, such as PAC-III, Aegis and other missile defence systems, together with the provision of advanced early warning assistance, will significantly enhance Taiwan's overall offensive as well as defensive capabilities. It will enable Taiwan to directly threaten air-space security over the Taiwan Straits and the Chinese mainland. More seriously, the provision of such missile defence systems by the United States will further encourage the small number of separatists in Taiwan in their efforts against reunification, and may even prompt them to take reckless actions and aggravate tensions over the Taiwan Straits.

The Chinese Government is committed to peaceful reunification. Chinese leaders have on many occasions reiterated this by stating that "Chinese people will not fight Chinese people". The reason China cannot forswear the use of force is to maintain a form of deterrence against separatists in Taiwan and overseas. The Taiwan question is China's domestic affair and the reunification of the motherland is China's supreme national interest. The provision of any TMD systems or other advanced weapon systems to Taiwan by any country will meet with strong opposition from the Chinese people. We hope that the countries concerned will unequivocally undertake not to transfer TMD systems to Taiwan, not to provide any assistance to Taiwan in the development of its own missile defence systems, and not include Taiwan in any TMD system. Otherwise, bilateral relationships between China and the countries concerned - and even the peace and security of North East Asia - will be severely undermined.E


Over the decade since the end of the Cold War the international community has achieved remarkable progress in stemming the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery. The basic reason for such progress lies in the relative stability of the global and regional security environments, as well as the willingness of the countries concerned to resolve problems through dialogue instead of confrontation. If the United States is genuinely concerned, as it claims, about the threat to its security caused by the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery, the right thing to do would be to abandon its hegemonic mentality and behaviour, respect the legitimate security interests of other countries, strengthen international co-operation and dialogue, and shore up - and where possible build on - the international arms control and non-proliferation regime. The development and deployment of NMD and TMD systems may be able to psychologically and temporarily satisfy some people's anxiety for absolute security, but it will do little to reduce the threat of WMD and their means of delivery. Furthermore, by disrupting the global strategic balance and stability it will destroy the basis for any progress in the field of arms control and non-proliferation, and in the end adversely affect the security interests of all countries, including the United States.

Editor's Footnotes

A. See News Review

B. See News Review,

C. See Opinion and Analysis

D. See Documents and Sources.

E. See News Review

Ambassador Sha Zukang is Director-General of the Department of Disarmament and Arms Control at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing, China.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page