Why China Is Angry at U.S. Missile Defense Plan

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In the realm of global nuclear deterrents, words count for little and intentions are weighed by actions. China's warning Wednesday that U.S. plans to deploy a national missile defense system will prompt Beijing to expand its own nuclear arsenal highlights the fact that a program ostensibly directed against "rogue states" such as Iraq and North Korea can have unintended consequences among nations with which Washington seeks strategic cooperation. Whatever its intentions, says Beijing's top arms negotiator, Sha Zukang, the proposed missile-interceptor system would effectively eliminate any threat posed by China's relatively small ballistic missile fleet, thereby neutralizing its nuclear deterrent. And that's a situation Beijing finds unacceptable. "How can we base our own national security on your assurances of good will?" said Sha. "To defeat your defenses we'll have to spend a lot of money, and we don't want to do this. But otherwise, the United States will feel it can attack anyone at any time, and that isn't tolerable."

Russia, too, has warned that U.S. deployment of a missile defense system is unacceptable, and that Moscow won't renegotiate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids the deployment of further defensive systems by either side. While China is concerned that even the proposed 100 interceptor missiles based in Alaska would neutralize its nuclear capability, Russia fears that even though its existing fleet could easily overwhelm the initial deployment, this would simply be a stage toward developing the full-blown nuclear umbrella proposed by President Reagan during the "Star Wars" years.

And, indeed, that's the way many conservative Republicans see it, too. Both Moscow and Beijing have warned that their primary response to the proposed shield against "rogue" missiles will be to expand their own missile fleets, and they've also got their scientists huddling together to figure out ways of beating the U.S. interceptor system (which, by all accounts, isn't exactly difficult right now, since the system has yet to prove itself able to trump even the most basic decoys and countermeasures used by an incoming missile). But, of course, the fact that a U.S. plan to build a limited shield has the Russians threatening to build new missiles also has Washington's European allies complaining that while they won't be covered by the shield, they're every bit as vulnerable to a new generation of Russian missiles. All this over an interceptor system whose performance in tests leaves many scientists unconvinced that it's more than simply hypothetical.