On 18 December 2007, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Kongo launched a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) and destroyed a ballistic missile launched as part of a cooperative test with the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii.1 This successful and highly publicized test proved to be a major technological and political step for Japan in its development of a sea-based ballistic-missile defense (BMD) system with the United States. Public statements issued by both the United States and Japan after the test proclaimed the system as crucial to maintaining peace and security in East Asia. The People's Republic of China (PRC), however, given its role as Asia's regional hegemon, has reason to contest such proclamations and has been closely watching the system's development.
This high-profile BMD system raises many questions regarding strategic relations in the dynamic and complex Asia-Pacific region. Among them, how does China view this inherently defensive system in the larger context of the U.S.-Japan alliance and Tokyo's pacifist constitution? And, against the backdrop of American global centrality and the rise of China, how will BMD affect Sino-U.S. relations?
Threat Analysis and BMD Development
Throughout the early 1990s North Korea periodically tested theater ballistic missiles with progressively increasing ranges. Pyongyang's launch of a Taepodong I that overflew Japan's main island of Honshu in August 1998 prompted an outcry from a Japanese public clearly concerned about the implications of a nuclear-capable missile passing overhead.2 Japan's politicians responded by turning to Tokyo's alliance with the United States. They initiated a five-year program with Washington to cooperate in the research and development of the Navy theater-wide ballistic-missile defense system, now referred to as the sea-based midcourse defense (SMD) system.3 The program has been extended through at least 2015, as Tokyo carefully watches Pyongyang's defiant missile development. In April 2009, North Korea launched an advanced Taepodong II, which followed an unsuccessful missile test in July 2006 and a nuclear weapons test in October of that year. Japan deployed multiple assets of its BMD system ahead of the 2009 launch, vowing to intercept any threat to its homeland. Though a defensive intercept proved unnecessary, the standoff confirms Japan's rationale of emphasizing homeland defense.
In the unlikely absence of a North Korean threat, however, one reason for continued development of the system is a lack of transparency in Beijing's military growth. American involvement in East Asia serves to support its ally, Japan, and counter growing Chinese military power. China's military growth has been ambiguous in both size and direction, leading to specific concerns from "defense analysts and planners in Japan, and those in the political world who think about such matters, [who] fear that China may one day threaten Japan with ballistic missiles."4
One very clear component of Beijing's military growth lies in its view of Taiwan as a breakaway province. The original mandate by Congress to establish the system came in the wake of the PRC's provocative 1996 firing of ballistic missiles in the Taiwan Strait, and identified the defense of key regional allies—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—as its chief aim. An annual U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) report on the PRC military asserts:
China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world. It is developing and testing offensive missiles . . . and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses. . . . By September 2008, the PLA had deployed between 1,050 and 1,150 CSS-6 and CSS-7 SRBMs to units opposite Taiwan. It is increasing the size of this force at a rate of more than 100 missiles per year.5
Throughout its report, DOD emphasizes that the PRC's military expenditures are often misleading, calling for additional transparency by Beijing. While the purpose of the missiles opposite Taiwan is obvious, the specific rationale for much of China's investment in ballistic-missile technology remains ambiguous. From the American perspective, the SMD system allows the United States to rely on its preeminence in the maritime domain and provide a key element of the strategic balance that it seeks in East Asia.
An additional reason for the United States to continue development of BMD is China's possible development of the antiship ballistic missile. To counter U.S. maritime superiority in a theoretical Pacific conflict—possibly over Taiwan—China appears to be engaged in a
sustained effort to develop the capability to attack, at long ranges, military forces that might deploy or operate within the western Pacific . . . through a layered capability . . . [that] would provide China with preemptive and coercive options in a regional crisis.6
If fully developed, this daunting capability could challenge the universally assumed primacy of the U.S. carrier strike group. Developing a forward-deployed and mobile BMD system to counter ASBMs helps ensure American maritime superiority.
The United States began BMD development under the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, which has since transformed into the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). It is responsible for developing missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in Europe. The Asia-Pacific region's extensive maritime geography virtually dictates sea-based systems, hence the use of the SMD. The system is designed to detect and track a ballistic missile after launch with the aim of intercepting and destroying it in its mid-course phase. If the threat missile is not destroyed before entering its terminal phase, the technological requirements are much more complex to chase, versus intercept, the target. The cornerstone of SMD is the Aegis-equipped cruiser and destroyer, fitted with the SPY-1D radar and the Standard Missile (SM-2 or SM-3) interceptor. BMD upgrades have been integrated into and are built on the inherent capabilities of Aegis. Nineteen U.S. ships are currently fitted for BMD—16 of which are based in the Pacific—and two new ships are planned to join the fleet by 2010. Japan has two of its Aegis destroyers involved in SMD, two more are planned to receive a BMD upgrade, and joint development continues on an improved variant of the SM-3 interceptor missile.7
Beijing's Critical Response
The military potential of the U.S.-Japan BMD program elicits a critical response from Beijing based on China's geographic and political position in the Asia-Pacific region. The nation continues to craft its international relations in line with a grand strategy of Chinese predominance in Asia, adhering to a maritime strategy of "active offshore defense." Throughout the 1980s, the commander of China's navy (the People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) Liu Huaqing, began developing a concrete vision for China's active offshore defense and designed naval strategy and shipbuilding to meet the goal of Asian predominance. Liu advocated an antiaccess approach, where the PLAN would have superiority in its maritime periphery, which he described in terms of two Pacific island chains. The first encompasses a region between mainland China and a line that stretches from Japan in the north, includes Taiwan, passes through the Philippines and sweeps toward Singapore. Liu—as does Beijing today—viewed the key to regional maritime dominance as control of the South China and East China seas, contained within the first island chain. More recently, China's growth as a world power has seen it eye control farther east to a second island chain, defined as an imaginary line bounded by Japan, the Marianas, and passing south through central Indonesia.8
Japan's military and economic strength, coupled with American presence and control over Southeast Asian sea lines of communication (SLOCs) frustrates the PRC's strategy of regional dominance. SLOC control is crucial to the PLAN's antiaccess strategy, or maintenance of sea control inside its two island chains. China views the collaborative BMD program as a substantial emboldening of the U.S.-Japan alliance and a contributor to instability in its own backyard. In June 2007, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu reflected China's official position to the BMD program by indicating "the [U.S.-Japan] missile defense . . . is not conducive to mutual trust between major countries and regional security, and it may cause new proliferation problems. . . . We hope relevant parties can act cautiously."9 This carefully worded statement infers Beijing's desire for regional hegemony and provides a backdrop for key arguments against U.S.-Japan missile defense. Four elements describe China's response: the preeminence of its intent to control Taiwan, a concern over Japan's remilitarization, the threat of an arms race, and a weakening of its own nuclear deterrent.
In the heart of China's periphery is Taiwan. A contingency across the Taiwan Strait remains central to the scope of China's military development, as indicated in the PRC's latest defense policy paper, where Taiwan is referred to in terms of "separatist forces working for . . . independence."10 Given its limited naval expeditionary capability, if the PRC were to strike Taiwan, it would rely primarily on its extensive ballistic-missile capability.11 An effective BMD system thus weakens China's reliance on a cross-strait missile attack. China's defense policy paper indicates that the United States' arms sales to Taiwan exacerbate Sino-U.S. relations, and reflects Chinese fears that BMD technology could be transferred to the island. Japan's technical ability to intervene in the defense of Taiwan might generate a much larger conflict in the region and threaten China's ability to keep its regional power status.
No Longer Self-Defense?
Japan's maintenance of a BMD system affords a great deal of investment and attention to its defense force. Implementation of the system has prompted significant internal debate over the interpretation of the nation's pacifist constitution written in the wake of World War II. Japan's standing interpretation of Article 9 of its constitution allows defense of the homeland, but prevents Tokyo from engaging in collective self-defense.12 This has justified legal pursuit of BMD in that any defensive action taken by the program would defend only the homeland. Others in Japan argue that involvement creates a slippery slope to a constitutional crisis that would be faced in taking commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance to its logical extreme. If Japan was faced with the physical opportunity to intercept an attack in progress on the United States or its forces, could its military constitutionally act to defend its ally? As debate over these questions progresses in Tokyo, China advances its second argument against BMD by claiming that Japanese investment in the technology, coupled with constitutional reinterpretation, could lead to Japan's remilitarization.
Early in the system's development, China expressed concern that the technology could lead to Japan's creation of an offensive missile program. Then-ambassador for arms control, Sha Zukang, stated in 1999,
Many of the technologies used in antimissile systems are easily applicable in offensive missiles. This is . . . why China stands against the cooperation between the United States and Japan to develop TMD [Theater Missile Defense] and opposes any transfer of TMD systems to Taiwan.13
China argues that a remilitarized Japan could challenge China's regional hegemony and maritime supremacy within the first and second island chains.
The possibility of Japanese remilitarization not only challenges China militarily, but also its relationships with smaller Southeast Asian nations. If Japan revised its constitution to allow collective self-defense, it would then be able to provide a regional umbrella of security in the regrettable event that a rogue state was to launch a missile attack. This shift in power might decrease China's relative importance through the region if smaller countries were to look to Japan for regional leadership instead of China. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarizes concerns with Japanese remilitarization:
China is concerned about the emerging MD [missile defense] cooperation in [the] Asia-Pacific region, which not only goes beyond the legitimate defense needs of the countries concerned, casting shadows on regional security, but may also lead to the proliferation of advanced missile technologies and undermine the peace and stability in both the Asia-Pacific region and the world.14
Viewed through the lens of China's grand strategy, this expresses apprehension that BMD extends beyond its intended purpose of Japanese homeland defense and gives Japan the power to challenge China's regional leadership.
Beijing's third argument against BMD is that it will contribute to an accelerated arms race. With Japan possessing ballistic-missile defense technology, China argues it needs to overcome those defenses with longer-range and more evasive missiles. Concurrently, North Korea might do the same to counter defenses to its east in Japan. In light of the new threat, Japan—and the United States—might expand defensive systems, and this reactive cycle could trigger an arms race and bring new countries into a cycle of instability.15
Finally, China sees BMD as a threat to its own survivable nuclear deterrent. Even as it condemns an arms build-up, Beijing is developing hardier systems to maintain its nuclear deterrent strength, to include road-mobile intercontinental-ballistic missiles with longer ranges, and strategic ballistic-missile submarines. These forces demonstrate a shift from older, more vulnerable systems to "greater flexibility and options for strategic strike than previously available."16 By expanding its deterrent capability, China has fulfilled its own prophecy regarding an arms build-up. This growing capability still rests on China's overarching strategy of regional strength and pushes back against Japanese challenges to regional power.
Foreign Policy Implications
Despite this chain of arguments since Japan's initial involvement in the program with the United States, China's reaction to the 18 December 2007 Kongo intercept remained somewhat muted. When questioned about the Japanese test, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded in relatively mild tones: "We take note that Japan has reiterated its adherence to the path of peaceful development on many occasions. We hope that Japan will honor its commitment to regional peace and stability as well as mutual trust among countries in the region."17 This reaction to such a major step by Japan could indicate a Chinese understanding that overstated rhetoric is often counterproductive in today's diplomatic environment. Since the 2007 test, China's public language regarding BMD has been tempered, providing an opportunity for the United States and Japan to exhibit diplomatic transparency and press for the same from the PRC.
The current cross-strait dynamic shows signs of eased relations in light of the May 2008 inauguration of Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou. Both President Ma and President Hu Jintao of China have expressed support for "peaceful development" and have pursued additional economic interaction. U.S. defense analysts project that, although Taiwan remains a central Chinese focus, Beijing is unlikely to take major military action in the near future. "China's leaders recognize that a conflict over Taiwan involving the United States would give rise to a long-term hostile relationship between the two nations—a result that would not be in China's interests."18
While diplomatic transparency grows across the strait, it also grows between Tokyo and Beijing, demonstrated by a recent meeting of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, President Hu Jintao, and former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso in Beijing. Although some inevitable hesitation exists, the two nations seek an environment that reduces suspicion between them. Prime Minister Aso recognized that "the essence of Japan-China bilateral relations is that our two countries are mutually indispensable to each other . . . Japan and China acting in harmony benefits both countries, while rivalry between us undermines both countries' interests."19
Washington should use its position as a global leader to take advantage of these eased relations and assure China that its military involvement in the region is, in fact, defensive and designed for rogue states. This action also serves to assure Japan of Washington's commitment to the alliance. The United States should take the risk of trusting and deferring to China on local issues, such as SLOC security, and even Taiwan. By minimizing major weapon sales to Taiwan, the United States could prove a great deal of trust and honor its own policy of "one China." These actions acknowledge that China's strength in the region is a benefit that outweighs the risks to Washington, and creates a cycle of transparency and stability.
Prime Minister Aso's October 2008 speech concluded with a challenge of international collaboration on a "host of issues . . . that Japan and China should engage in cooperatively, proactively sending a message from Asia to the world."20 This challenge creates a framework whereby Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo can fulfill their roles as global leaders through emphasis on regional and international cooperation that defer to the strengths of each.
Japan's logistical support of U.S. maritime security operations in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf is a prime example of collaboration on issues of global security and stability. Multilateral efforts can further this trend of cooperation, as evidenced by Beijing's recent naval efforts to counter piracy off the Horn of Africa. By promoting collective security in the maritime environment, these three world leaders fulfill their natural roles to further and maintain global economic prosperity.
Although the U.S.-Japan ballistic-missile defense system carries with it the potential for political misunderstandings, the diplomatic backdrop on which it exists has many opportunities for building trust. To promote regional stability in Asia, the United States can leverage its position as a world power to engage both Japan and China. Continuing to pursue ballistic-missile defense technologies with Japan strengthens Tokyo's confidence, while simultaneously engaging China on global collaborative efforts allays Beijing's fears over the purpose of ballistic-missile defense. As Washington pursues this proactive approach to foreign policy, it can facilitate Beijing's rational use of strength—the key to stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
2. Don Kirk, "North Korea Test-Fires a Missile off Japan's North," International Herald-Tribune, 1 September 1998.
3. Richard P. Cronin, Japan-U.S. Cooperation on Ballistic Missile Defense: Issues and Prospects (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service), 19 March 2002, p. 3.
4. Cronin, p. 31.
5. Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2009 Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009), p. 48.
6. Ibid., pp. 20-21.
7. "Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense," U.S. Missile Defense Agency (Washington, DC: January 2009).
8. Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pp. 165-166.
9. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu's Regular Press Conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, 5 June 2007.
10. China's National Defense in 2008 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, January 2009).
11. 2009 Annual Report to Congress, p. 48.
12. Cronin, p. 16.
13. Sha Zukang, "Some Thoughts on Non-Proliferation," Speech at the 7th Annual Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference: Repairing the Regime, 12 January 1999.
14. "Official Positions: Missile Defence." Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Department of Arms Control, 21 May 2007.
15. Toshi Yoshihara, "U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense and China's Undersea Deterrent," in Andrew S. Erickson, et al, editors, China's Future Nuclear Submarine Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), p. 333.
16. 2009 Annual Report to Congress, p. VII.
17. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang's Regular Press Conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, 18 December 2007.
18. 2009 Annual Report to Congress, p. 44.
19. Taro Aso, "My Personal Conviction Regarding Japan-China Relations," Speech given at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, 24 October 2008.