ERIK ECKHOLMWhat America calls a Defense, China calls an Offense
July 2, 2000
BEIJING -- A huge superpower and you say you're afraid of tiny little North Korea?" snorted Sha Zukang, China's chief arms-control negotiator, in a recent interview. "We think that's ridiculous."
In truth, it's hard to find any foreign-policy expert here, in or out of government, who believes the stated American rationale for a continental anti-missile defense: that it's merely intended to stop the likes of North Korea or Iraq.
President Clinton has said he will decide in coming weeks, after a crucial test scheduled for July 7, whether to start building radars and 100 missile interceptors in Alaska, the first phase of a grander project.
Even westward-leaning scholars here think the new push for missile defense in Washington reflects an underlying conviction, in the American military and a strong faction of the political elite, that the United States must better prepare for battle with China.
Just as Washington has a growing coterie of politicians, ex-officials and experts who warn of an emerging "China threat," China has an even broader group of officials and scholars who think the United States is trying to hem their country in. They portray the United States as a power-drunk bully, determined to preserve its post-cold war status as the world's dominant power.
China's leaders almost certainly share suspicions about the "American threat," but they also know that their ability to shape events will remain limited until China becomes far richer and more technologically advanced.
So for now they are putting more emphasis on revamping the economy than on pursuing a costly arms race.
Taiwan is the obvious flashpoint, the place where American promises and China's core goals most obviously could collide.
But many experts here see American support for Taiwan as part of a broader, unstated program of containment.
"China faces an elementary reality: the United States is steadily encroaching on China, and China's means for counterattack and room for maneuver under American pressure have shrunk," wrote Wang Weiguang, an international relations expert at Beijing University, in an essay in the current issue of Strategy and Management, a mainstream policy journal.
Beyond Washington's guarantees to Taiwan, these experts point accusingly at recent American-Japanese defense guidelines that seem designed to draw Japan into any Pacific war; at American military ties elsewhere in Asia; at American use of human rights and trade disputes to keep China on the defensive; and now, at the seeming rush toward missile defenses that would neutralize China's nuclear forces and could be extended over Taiwan.
For the last year, as the missile defense proposal gained popularity, Washington's attention was largely on Russian objections and the need to revise the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Only belatedly have officials seriously considered the depth of China's objections and the possible truth of its warnings that a dangerous arms race could be set off.
If Washington ignores Beijing's protests, some scholars here privately say, the always shaky support for friendly relations with the United States will be eroded. For from here, American assurances that the system is not intended to counter China simply will not wash.
"The United States has used North Korea as an excuse to build missile defenses, but now the two Koreas have improved their relations and the risk of war has dramatically declined," said Yan Xuetong, a scholar at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations, which has close ties to the government. "If the United States continues to develop a missile defense anyway, it's difficult for us to believe that it's not aimed at China."
For the foreseeable future, the proposed missile defenses would be useful against only one country and that is China, said Shen Dingli, an expert in arms control and American studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Russia's missile forces will remain large enough to overwhelm the system, he noted, and, realistically, no other potential enemy will have effective intercontinental missiles for many years.
Pentagon planners say that for reliable defense, three interceptors should be launched toward every incoming missile.
So the 100-interceptor plan seems tailor-made to cancel out China's small force of long-range missiles, estimated by Western intelligence agencies at no more than 18 or 20.
"Even if the United States says the system is not aimed at China, the capability is aimed at China," Mr. Shen said.
China is already developing more accurate and powerful intercontinental missiles and officials here say they will do what is necessary to protect China's nuclear credibility. They would probably multiply the number of new missiles they build or put multiple warheads on new missiles, as well as deploy decoys to outwit the American defenses.
Whatever their suspicions about American goals, President Jiang Zemin and other Communist Party leaders continue to stress their desire for cooperation, and they are taking the politically risky path of further opening their economy to global competition.
Like American counterparts who advocate building ties between the two nations, China's leaders may hope that frictions can be contained and overwhelmed by the two nations' shared interests in prosperity.
China's leaders also know how much their power over international affairs remains constrained by China's relative backwardness, economic and military. And they seem to believe that "economic power is the most important and most essential factor in comprehensive national power," as the latest Pentagon assessment of China's military described the Chinese credo.
After the shock of the Kosovo war, which the Chinese saw as a terrible sign that the United States can take drastic measures while ignoring China, there was serious debate here about whether to accelerate the growth in military spending, which remains far below American levels.
But at a key leadership meeting last summer, the senior leaders reaffirmed their priority emphasis on economic and technological development, according to the Pentagon report.
China does seek great power status and especially to become the preeminent Asian power, strong enough, in the words of the Pentagon analysis, "so that no major action will be taken by any other international actor in Asia without first considering Chinese interests."
Through sheer size and assertiveness, if not yet weaponry, China may be almost there. But America's apparent readiness to pursue a missile shield despite the evident harm to China's security would be, for many people here, one more stinging reminder of why they must make China stronger.