Cold War Redux: China Responds to the Russo-American BMD Dispute

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 14

As Chinese commentators criticize U.S. defense officials for their “Cold War mentality,” one need merely read the headlines to feel trapped in a bad rerun of the 1960s. Washington’s attempts to meet asymmetric challenges at both ends of the conflict spectrum have kept its hands full. At the “low intensity” end, the U.S. military is enmeshed in a long, bloody insurgency in Iraq. Meanwhile, Washington and Moscow are engaged in a heated row over U.S. attempts to deploy a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe as each side demonstrates its prowess at “high intensity” warfare. China’s growing fears that such a feat, if successfully accomplished in Europe, might be replicated in the Asia-Pacific, have resulted in a crescendo of criticism from Beijing. While certainly not the first time that China has condemned the deployment of a U.S. BMD system—as seen during the dispute prior to Washington’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002—China is now backing its words with deeds. Indeed, the January anti-satellite (ASAT) test and the expected deployment of the DF-31 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) are indicative of a Chinese strategy to develop capabilities that would permit it to negate any military advantage the U.S. might obtain by deploying a similar BMD system in the Asia-Pacific.

Watching from the Sidelines

Since January, the United States and Russia have engaged in a verbal tit-for-tat over plans to expand the U.S. ballistic missile defense system into Europe by constructing a radar base in the Czech Republic and stationing mid-course interceptor missiles in Poland. This plan was always likely to earn Russian ire, as Moscow had long viewed the incorporation of former Warsaw Pact members into NATO as a direct affront to its dignity and security and only relented in the 1990s when it was implicitly guaranteed that U.S. and NATO troops would not be stationed on former Pact countries.

At a February conference on international security in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the missile defense plan, stating that it would lead to an “inevitable arms race.” Since then, Russia has suspended its participation in the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and threatened to abrogate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty that helped prevent a nuclear arms race in Europe at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

Chinese media have followed the Russo-American spat over the missile defense system closely, focusing on Washington’s supposedly anti-Russian strategy and the destabilizing effects of missile defense. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry initially refrained, for the most part, from taking an explicit position on the Russo-American disagreement on missile defense, Beijing expressed its views by proxy; Chinese academics and state-owned media have adopted positions generally favorable to Moscow, thereby allowing Beijing to express its views without becoming directly involved.

Indeed, when discussing the missile defense program in isolation, Chinese media reports in this earlier period tended to be matter-of-fact. For example, Ren Xiangqun, a researcher at the Chinese Military Science Academy, noted in a People’s Daily editorial in late May that if “the United States can smoothly set up interception bases and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, its missile defense system will basically create a global deployment structure with the U.S. homeland at the center and East Asia and Europe as its two flanks” (People’s Daily, May 23).

When discussing the missile defense shield in light of Russia’s interests, however, Chinese media have championed the Russian position and criticized American justifications for the program. One characteristic report in this vein is an early May People’s Daily article that claims U.S. policy toward Russia is to “contain the nation to prevent it from rising again.” The article continues to observe that “Washington is no doubt targeting Russia” with the deployment of the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and that the “world is perhaps on the brink of a new Cold War” (People’s Daily, May 11).

An earlier People’s Daily piece attempts to place the broader set of Russo-American disputes over such issues as human rights, the rule of law and nuclear proliferation in Iran in context by summarizing the two sides’ respective strategies: “The paramount objective of the Putin administration is a Russian renaissance, which is the last thing Washington wants to see and will tolerate, since U.S. hegemony cannot be challenged. To prevent such a scenario, the U.S. has been trying every means possible to weaken and contain Russia since the end of the Cold War” (People’s Daily, May 3).

Another article that attempted to explain Washington’s strategic logic toward Russia likewise points to the overall pattern of U.S. efforts on NATO expansion, democracy promotion in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and missile defense efforts as proof of Washington’s vindictive goals. The article concludes that the United States is “punishing the loser” of the Cold War by attempting to impose upon it “the reality that the U.S. will expand in a range as large as possible in a hope to build a permanent U.S.-led international pattern.” (People’s Daily, March 24).

Such a supporting role was easy (and not costly) for China to play, expressing concerns about U.S. missile defense capabilities by criticizing developments in Europe without having to directly lead the charge in public. This approach was only possible, however, so long as Moscow kept up the pressure on Washington.

Leading the Cheering Section

At the early June Group of 8 meeting in Germany, Putin changed tack, offering to cooperate with the United States on missile defense by changing the location of the planned radar site to Azerbaijan, where a Soviet-era X-band radar facility is already established. When President George W. Bush and Putin met at the Bush family compound in Maine a month later, Putin expanded upon his earlier offer, stating that the Russians would be willing to either update the existing radar facility in Azerbaijan or replace it completely, provided that the Polish and Czech facilities were disbanded.

As Putin cast aside the standard of opposition to missile defense at the G8 summit, Beijing—concerned that Russia might once again capitulate to Washington’s will as it did regarding the ABM Treaty—has taken a more assertive course in the debate by releasing a series of press commentaries and public statements criticizing the U.S. missile defense effort. The first official Chinese Foreign Ministry statement on the issue of missile defense in Europe was released at the dawn of the summit, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu told the media that the U.S. plan for Europe has attracted “some concern” and that “missile defense systems negatively impact strategic balance and stability and are detrimental to mutual trust among major powers and regional security [and] will also probably trigger new proliferation issues” (Xinhua, June 5). A pair of articles since the G8 summit indicates the degree to which the Chinese media position has swung in support of the government’s openly critical line.

First, on June 18, the People’s Liberation Army Daily published a scathing critique of the proposed U.S. system, stating that “vigorous U.S. development of antimissile defense systems is aimed at changing the ‘mutually assured destruction’ nuclear deterrent concept left over from the Cold War…by weakening the enemy’s nuclear missile deterrent, thus achieving ‘attack through defense.’” The article concludes that because U.S. efforts are pushing Russia to develop new offensive missile capabilities “that can pierce through any antimissile defense system,” U.S. efforts will ultimately be frustrated and “Europeans will become ‘hostages’ to the U.S. antimissile system.” The article concludes by predicting that the “summer breezes” at the then-upcoming Kennebunkport summit “will probably still be mixed with some whiffs of the Cold War” (Jiefangjun Bao, June 18).

The source of China’s increasingly critical pronouncements on the missile defense system in Europe is the perceived threat from U.S. missile defense ambitions in the Asia-Pacific and the risk that Russia will no longer lead the international campaign against the BMD system if the Azerbaijan plan happens to go through.

On June 21, the People’s Daily clearly laid out these concerns with an editorial headlined as “The Untimely Anti-Ballistic Missile System.” Observing that Washington’s plan in Europe has been matched by similar efforts in cooperation with Japan and Australia in Asia, the article observes that the ballistic missile defense also has “offensive” uses such as “accurately intercepting high-speed missiles attacking aircraft in flight and satellites in orbit.” The article argues that U.S. and allied efforts to build a missile defense system “simply reflects the U.S. mindset of intensifying the Cold War mentality” and “can neither help maintain regional security and stability nor enhance the mutual trust and cooperation between Asian-Pacific countries.” The article concludes on an ominous note, stating that missile defense “will intensify the distrust and feelings of alienation among countries and even pose a new issue of proliferation” (People’s Daily, June 21).

Playing Ball

The fairly sudden intensification in China’s rhetoric toward missile defense is explained in part by the understated decision that Beijing will be committed to space warfare and developing missile capabilities to leverage against U.S. and Taiwanese forces in the region for the foreseeable future.

The decision to commit itself to bolstering its missile forces is implicit in China’s official statements and media commentaries on missile defense, where the warning that U.S. efforts will result in instability and proliferation may be read as a threat. Indeed, in the one instance where proliferation has arguably been tied to missile defense, Chinese commentators have been exuberant over the challenge posed to U.S. missile defense capabilities. After Russia test-fired the RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in June—a weapon capable of carrying up to ten independently targetable warheads and was designed to replace a missile that Cold War planners code-named “Satan”—the People’s Daily reported that the most dangerous nuclear missile had “destroyed the myth” of U.S. missile defense and restored “strategic balance” between the two powers (People’s Daily, June 12).

Moreover, as Beijing has become vehemently critical of U.S. attempts to erect a missile defense system in Europe, it seems that China has also begun to make secondary, hardware preparations, should the United States either remain unconvinced about halting the deployment of the BMD system or decide to replicate a similar system in the Asia-Pacific. Western observers have noted that the technical parameters of China’s January 11 ASAT missile test—the use of a phased array radar to guide a kinetic-kill vehicle toward a target traveling faster than an ICBM warhead during reentry—are similar to those of a ballistic missile intercept [1]. While surprising, China’s attainment of such a sophisticated technological capability was first hinted at in November 2006 by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp.’s display of a conceptual ballistic missile defense system at the Zhuhai Air Show (Wen Wei Po, November 10, 2006).

Ashley Tellis, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that Beijing has determined that a robust missile and anti-satellite capability is essential to “counter the overall military capability of the United States” and to disable the “complex, exposed network of command, control, communications, and computer-based systems that provide intelligence [and] reconnaissance” to U.S. forces [2]. Tellis writes that because Chinese defense planners see the networked nature of American forces as their principle vulnerability, they are not likely to surrender their efforts to build stronger missile forces no matter what offers Washington makes to halt the weaponization of space. This logic has a corollary in the area of missile defense, where the ability to intercept Chinese missiles and protect critical U.S. and allied satellites and nodes is one of the greatest threats to China’s emerging military strategy.

Having recently dissected a series of doctrinal textbooks on campaign strategy published by China’s National Defense University and distributed to its military academies and war colleges, defense analyst and former U.S. defense attaché in Beijing Larry Wortzel finds that, much like Russia, China is taking steps to overwhelm any U.S. missile defense system. Wortzel cites a group of Chinese military officers from the Second Artillery Command Academy who recently wrote that “guided missile forces are the trump card (sa shou jian) in achieving victory in limited high technology war” [3]. Another Chinese officer argues that in order for a guided missile attack to successfully destroy U.S. military capabilities, it is necessary to “neutralize enemy anti-missile systems and missile sensor systems,” leaving such critical assets as naval vessels and airfields vulnerable to attack [4].


While the Russo-American spat over missile defense has attracted the most attention in recent months, China has played a critical role in observing and attempting to undermine U.S. efforts in this field. Beijing’s effort to rapidly develop a broad range of theater missile strike capabilities that it will likely employ in a potential conflict—unlike Russia’s RS-24 Armageddon missile—certainly carries a tremendous risk of unintentionally escalating a Sino-American armed conflict to the level of nuclear war. As China develops its capabilities to blind U.S. surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence assets with missile attacks, the temptation for the United States to respond in kind will increase, raising a new specter of conflict that is indeed reminiscent of the Cold War.


1. For an additional discussion of the technical aspects of the ASAT test and its similarities with a BMD system, see Ashley Tellis, “Punching the U.S. Military’s ‘Soft Ribs’: China’s Antisatellite Weapon Test in Strategic Perspective,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief 51 (June 2007), 2-3 or Richard Fisher, Jr., “Two Cheers for the 2007 PLA Report,” International Assessment and Strategy Center, June 20, 2007.

2. Tellis, “Punching the U.S. Military’s ‘Soft Ribs'” 2-3.

3. Ge Xinliu, Mao Guanghong, and Yu Bo, “Problems Faced by Guided Missile Forces in Information Warfare Conditions and Their Countermeasures,” (Xinxi zhan zhong daodan budui mianlin de wenti yu duici), in Military Science Editorial Group, Wo Jun Xixi Zhan Wenti Yanjiu, pp. 188-189 in

Larry Wortzel, “China’s Nuclear Forces: Operations, Training Doctrine, Command, Control, and Campaign Planning,” Strategic Studies Institute (May 2007), 13.

4. Nie Yubao, “Combat Methods for Electronic Warfare Attacks on Heavily Fortified Enemy Naval Formations” (Daji haishang di da jian jianting biandui de dianzi zhan zhanfa), in Military Science Editorial Group, Research on Questions about Information Warfare in the PLA (Wo Jun Xixi Zhan Wenti Yanjiu), Beijing: National Defense University Press, 1999, pp. 183-187 in Ibid., 12.