China Steps Up Rhetoric against U.S. Missile Defense

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 20

Testing Ballistic Missile Defense

Chinese officials are becoming increasingly vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) developments in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the newly elevated U.S. security profile in their region resulting from the U.S. “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific region (“Pivot and Parry: China’s Response to America’s New Defense Strategy,” China Brief, March 15). During his visit to Japan last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the U.S. and Japanese governments had agreed to construct a second advanced BMD radar, in southern Japan. The new X-band radar would join an existing AN/TPY-2 radar in Japan’s northern Aomori Prefecture in 2006. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency and the Pacific Command are considering constructing a third such radar in Southeast Asia, such as in the Philippines (Wall Street Journal, August 23). Panetta emphasized the U.S. BMD system is not designed against China. When Panetta met his Chinese counterpart, however, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie bluntly responded to Panetta’s assertion that the new BMD radar was to “cope with North Korean ballistic missiles which threaten the U.S. homeland” by asking “Isn’t the base in Aomori prefecture…enough?” (Choongang Daily, September 19).

The United States will need to make a greater effort to address these concerns as well as China’s growing offensive strategic forces, which are complicating U.S. relations with Russia and other countries. While Chinese analysts share Russian anxieties about U.S. strategic defenses, concerns about China are one reason why Russian policymakers resist making further reductions in their nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, members of Congress also point to China’s growing nuclear weapons potential as a reason why Washington cannot cut its nuclear forces further. Other Asian countries are responding to China’s military buildup, which is partly a reaction to the rebalancing of U.S. military forces toward Asia, by increasing their own military spending [1].

Chinese Complaints

For at least the past decade, the Chinese national security community—which encompasses its government departments and agencies as well as influential researchers and academics—has raised complaints regarding U.S. ballistic missile defense programs.

A common Chinese objection is that U.S. BMD initiatives in East Asia are worsening the global and regional security environment, especially military and nonproliferation processes, to the detriment of Beijing. In August 2012, the Ministry of National Defense stated ”China has always believed that antimissile issues should be handled with great discretion, from the perspective of protecting global strategic stability” (Xinhua, August 24). Unofficial publications have been even blunter. This spring the Global Times expressed alarm that ”If Japan, South Korea and Australia join the system, a vicious arms race in Asia may follow” (Global Times, March 29). Major General Chen Zhou, Director of the Center for National Defense Policy at the Academy of Military Science, warned that U.S. BMD systems will “break global strategic balance and stability, will obstruct the process of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and may even trigger a new round of arms races” (China-U.S. Focus, August 24).

A more specific Chinese concern is that U.S. BMD systems threaten to weaken a core component of the China’s defense capacity. Over the past decade, Beijing has increased its defense spending dramatically to build a technically sophisticated missile arsenal. These systems include short-range missiles to prevent Taiwan’s independence and threaten U.S. and other adversary militaries near China; medium-range missiles to consolidate China’s influence in East Asia; and long-range missiles to deter the United States from interfering in Chinese efforts to achieve these first two objectives. In addition, China continues to export missile technology to Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and other states to gain money and diplomatic influence.

Some Chinese worry, despite U.S. declarations, that the United States will develop missile defenses capable of negating China’s strategic nuclear deterrent. The 2010 U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review points out, “China is one of the countries most vocal about U.S. ballistic missile defenses and their strategic implications.” Chinese analysts, however, do not consider this threat imminent, despite their noise (China Youth Daily, September 14). Not only is the technology to intercept intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at an early stage of development, but the prospects of a near-term war between China and the United States is low. Even so, Chinese analysts might reasonably worry that U.S. BMD capabilities will improve gradually or achieve a sudden technological breakthrough. Tang Xiaosong, director of the Center of International Security and Strategy Studies at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, observed the United States could increase the number of BMD systems near China rapidly or otherwise suddenly increase the threat confronting Beijing (China Daily, February 22, 2010). Furthermore, He Yun, a research fellow at Tsinghua University’s arms control program, noted “Although the U.S. missile defense system is not mature, China cannot ignore its continuing development. China’s concern about U.S. ballistic missile defense has nothing to do with deployment per se. Rather, it seeks to mitigate the technological, not military, effects of missile defense” (CSIS PacNet, No. 50, September 6, 2011).

Even if the United States attained the theoretical capacity to destroy China’s strategic nuclear forces preemptively, Chinese analysts still might not anticipate a nuclear war with the United States. They reasonably could worry, however, that U.S. policymakers might presume that, with an effective missile shield, they could then intervene militarily in other countries without having to heed Chinese objections.

The Chinese also fear Washington will use missile defense diplomacy as a means to promote containment of China. In February, Air Force Colonel Dai Xu published an article asserting China is in a crescent-shaped ring of encirclement. The ring begins in Japan, stretches through nations in the South China Sea to India, and ends in Afghanistan. Washington’s deployment of anti-missile systems around China’s periphery forms a crescent-shaped encirclement” (China Daily, February 22, 2010; Guangzhou Daily, February 13, 2010).

Beijing also fears Washington and Tokyo might at some point seek to extend a missile shield to Taiwan. Even before the announcement about the deployment of another U.S. BMD system in Japan, Chinese analysts attacked Washington for seeking to incorporate Taiwan into their evolving regional BMD architecture (China Daily, February 22, 2010). They worry the Taiwanese will feel less restrained about asserting their autonomy from the mainland if the U.S. missile shield serves to blunt the threat of China’s missiles (China-U.S. Focus, August 24). Yin Zhuo, a Beijing-based military expert, also said “to ‘protect’ Taiwan is just a move for the U.S. to deal with China, not an ultimate goal” (China Daily, August 25).

Another Chinese complaint is that U.S. offers to defend Asian countries with missile defense and other means are emboldening them to take a harder stance with China in their bilateral territorial disputes. In the view of Shi Yinhong, a reputable Chinese scholar, “the joint missile defense system objectively encourages Japan to keep an aggressive position in the Diaoyu Islands dispute.” Tao Wenzhao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences complained, “It is highly inappropriate and counter-constructive for the [United States] to make such a move at this highly sensitive time” (Global Times, September 18; New York Times, September 17).

In airing these objections, many Chinese analysts dismiss counterarguments that U.S. missile defenses are designed to protect the United States and its allies from missile threats from North Korea, Iran or other countries rather than from China and Russia (Chosun Ilbo, March 30; Global Times, March 29). Li Qinggong, deputy secretary of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, said “It will be like killing a fly with a bazooka if it is used to contain Pyongyang. I believe it is mainly aimed at detecting China’s missiles” (China Daily, August 25). Other Chinese analysts have echoed such sentiments, illustrating Beijing’s deep distrust of U.S. intentions (China-U.S. Focus, August 24; New York Times, August 24; China Daily, April 13).

China’s Response

The main Chinese response to these U.S.-led BMD initiatives in Asia has been to publicly and privately express concern that BMD deployments could affect regional security conditions adversely and urge that governments take into consideration the interests of all countries when making such decisions.

Following Panetta’s announcement in Japan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson commented “The anti-ballistic missile problem is closely intertwined with global and regional strategic balance and mutual trust. Measures taken by any country in search for their own security must not be built on the basis of doing harm to other countries. I hope the US starts from the point of defending global and regional strategic balance and stability and of promoting strategic mutual trust and deals with this problem in a discreet way” (, September 18). Earlier, the defense ministry issued a statement saying that “China has always believed that anti-missile issues should be handled with great discretion, from the perspective of protecting global strategic stability and promoting strategic mutual trust among all countries” (Wall Street Journal, August 23). In addition to such unilateral declarations and warnings, Chinese leaders have signed on to joint summit statements with Russia and with the heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that have included clauses warning of the destabilizing effects on missile defenses.

Besides statements, China can respond by strengthening its offensive potential, either directly to overcome any missile defenses or indirectly to guarantee some form of asymmetric response. In a March 2012 interview, arms control expert Xia Liping said China should increase the size and capability of its missiles to overcome U.S. missile defenses. He also said China must attack U.S. communications satellites to disable U.S. BMD systems should the need arise (Phoenix TV, March 29). A Global Times editorial published that same month argued “China can improve its nuclear weapons in both quantity and quality as well as develop offensive nuclear-powered submarines. China’s ballistic missiles should be able to break the interception capability of the U.S. system”—a point echoed later by Zhu Chenghu of China’s National Defense University (Reuters, July 18; Global Times, March 29).

In what Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins term “selective transparency,” the Chinese have been highlighting their new nuclear and conventional capabilities to bolster domestic and foreign confidence in the Chinese military deterrent (Wall Street Journal, August 24). On July 24, the People’s Liberation Army may have tested an ICBM known as the DF-41, which has the range to strike any city in the United States. The DF-41 missile can carry ten separate nuclear warheads, each of which can be programmed to strike at a different target (China Times, August 22). As Tsinghua professor Sun Zhe summed up Beijing’s exposure of some capabilities to Western media, “We need to be able to defend ourselves, and our main threat, I’m afraid, comes from the United States” (New York Times, August 24).

Although China’s small nuclear arsenal could more easily be neutralized by emerging U.S. missile defense systems than Russia’s larger fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, Beijing has resisted Russian overtures about greater cooperation in this area. More extensive Sino-Russian BMD collaboration could range from simply exchanging intelligence assessments to undertaking joint research and development programs for shared anti-BMD technologies. For example, they could pool their resources or expertise to overcome U.S. BMD systems stationed on their peripheries. They also could coordinate pressure against other countries in Europe or Asia to abstain from deploying U.S. BMD assets.

Whether in collaboration with Russia or alone, however, China probably will seek its own BMD capabilities. Beijing followed Washington and Moscow in developing its own nuclear weapons in the 1960s, an anti-satellite weapon in the past decade, and, most recently, tested its own incipient BMD system in 2010. Chinese experts have confirmed they are debating whether to develop BMD systems as well. Analysis of Chinese technical writings show extensive interest in developing passive and active countermeasures to BMD as well as more recently China’s own anti-satellite and BMD capabilities (New York Times, August 24; CEIP Proliferation Analysis, August 23; Science Times, January 26, 2010).

Positive BMD collaboration between China and the United States (and Russia) is also possible. Chinese analysts should recognize China’s expanding offensive nuclear capabilities are making it more difficult for Moscow and Washington to agree to further reduce their own strategic forces, which can damage China’s security far more than any U.S. missile defense system. Like their Russian counterparts, Chinese leaders can easily overcome any domestic objections to making major concessions on the missile defense issue in return for U.S. guarantees and other compensation. In return, the United States would expect Russia to reduce its non-strategic nuclear weapons and China to agree to constraints on its own offensive nuclear forces. If Beijing and Washington both accept the legitimacy of missile defenses, then a bilateral agreement is possible between them.


  1. David J. Berteau, Guy Ben-Ari, Joachim Hofbauer, Priscilla Hermann and Sneha Raghavan, Asian Defense Spending, 2000–2011, Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012.