Can a treaty con­tain China’s mis­siles?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY MARK STOKES AND DAN BLU­MEN­THAL Mark Stokes, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Project 2049 In­sti­tute, served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years. Dan Blu­men­thal is di­rec­tor of Asian stud­ies at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

With the New START treaty rat­i­fied, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can turn its at­ten­tion to the real source of nu­clear in­sta­bil­ity among the great pow­ers: China’s buildup of con­ven­tional bal­lis­tic mis­siles. The lat­est desta­bi­liz­ing sys­tem is China’s anti-ship bal­lis­tic mis­sile, the “car­rier killer” that the head of the U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand, Adm. Robert Wil­lard, deemed op­er­a­tional last week.

Dur­ing the many up­com­ing Sino-Amer­i­can sum­mits, in­clud­ing a state visit by Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should be­gin press­ing China to join the In­ter­me­di­ate Nu­clear Forces (INF) Treaty and stop its mis­sile buildup.

Why are China’s mis­siles the great­est source of un­ease? Be­cause there are no de­fen­sive an­swers that do not risk an im­me­di­ate es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions — and Bei­jing’s mis­sile force is soon likely to have the abil­ity to ground Pa­cific-based U.S. air forces and sink sur­face ships in Asian wa­ters.

China has the world’s most am­bi­tious mis­sile mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram. The anti-ship bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram that Wil­lard iden­ti­fied is one of many Chi­nese ad­vances; oth­ers in­clude mo­bile mul­ti­ple in­de­pen­dently tar­getable (MIRV) in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles, hy­per­sonic post-boost ve­hi­cles that re­main in the at­mos­phere and pre­clude in­ter­cept in flight, and a new gen­er­a­tion of ex­tended-range, ground-launched land at­tack cruise mis­siles. No mis­sile de­fense pro­gram on the hori­zon is ca­pa­ble of in­ter­cept­ing these sys­tems.

Over the past decade China has claimed that it needed to ex­pand its mis­sile force be­cause of on­go­ing ten­sions with Tai­wan. Re­la­tions with Tai­wan have warmed, yet Bei­jing’s mis­sile buildup con­tin­ues. While there is lit­tle doubt that Chi­nese na­tion­al­ists want to force Taipei into a set­tle­ment, it now ap­pears that the Tai­wan is­sue also served as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a mas­sive mis­sile mod­ern­iza­tion pro­gram. For China, a mis­sile-cen­tric mil­i­tary strat­egy makes sense: De­fend­ing against so­phis­ti­cated bal­lis­tic and ground-launched cruise mis­siles is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, and, un­like the United States and Rus­sia, China is not a sig­na­tory to the 1987 INF treaty, which pre­cludes only Washington and Moscow from de­ploy­ing short and in­ter­me­di­ate range land-based bal­lis­tic and cruise mis­siles.

By build­ing a mis­sile force sec­ond to none, China is in­creas­ing its ca­pa­bil­ity to co­erce its neigh­bors into re­solv­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­putes on its terms and the costs of a U.S. re­sponse. But the ex­pan­sion of China’s mis­sile force both un­der- mines re­gional se­cu­rity and ex­ac­er­bates a clas­sic re­gional arms race. The only real de­fense against these weapons is of­fense, so coun­tries threat­ened by China’s mis­siles will seek the abil­ity to tar­get the in­fra­struc­ture sup­port­ing mis­sile launches within nu­clear-armed China. In­dia and Tai­wan are in­vest­ing in pre­ci­sion strike sys­tems heav­ily re­liant on mis­siles. Over time, Ja­pan may feel com­pelled to de­ploy its own bal­lis­tic and cruise mis­siles.

More omi­nous still is that China’s mis­sile buildup could re­sult in the INF’s demise. Moscow has al­ready threat­ened to pull out if China does not sign the treaty. And, with its tac­ti­cal fighter bases and sur­face ships in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble, the United States also may have no choice but to ab­ro­gate the treaty and de­ploy mo­bile land-based mis­siles — a ca­pa­bil­ity much more dif­fi­cult for China to at­tack — to places such as Ja­pan; this could be­come the only way to de­ter Chi­nese ag­gres­sion. The end of the INF would mean a mis­sile arms race in­volv­ing four great nu­clear pow­ers — In­dia, China, Rus­sia and the United States. With­out sus­tained at­ten­tion to China’s mis­sile force this fright­en­ing sce­nario is be­com­ing more plau­si­ble.

Even ab­sent a bal­lis­tic mis­sile com­pe­ti­tion among the great pow­ers, strate­gic sta­bil­ity in Asia is in­creas­ingly un­cer­tain. If Washington re­mains bound by the INF, its re­sponse op­tions in a con­flict with China are highly es­ca­la­tory. If U.S. tac­ti­cal fighter bases and sur­face ships were hit by Chi­nese mis­siles, Washington would have to con­sider re­spond­ing by tar­get­ing mis­sile as­sets in­side China with in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles. To do so, Washington will need to fur­ther de­velop its Prompt Global Strike sys­tem, a means of ac­cu­rately launch­ing long-range mis­siles from the con­ti­nen­tal United States. Be­cause such mis­siles could also be used to carry nu­clear weapons, Chi­nese de­fend­ers would have no way of know­ing whether the mu­ni­tions fly­ing to­ward them were car­ry­ing nu­clear or con­ven­tional war­heads. This un­cer­tainty raises the risk of a Chi­nese nu­clear re­sponse.

China’s un­re­lent­ing de­ploy­ment of mis­siles will soon force Washington to choose be­tween pulling out of the INF or de­vel­op­ing longer-range, strate­gi­cally un­sta­ble mil­i­tary re­sponses that are con­sis­tent with the agree­ment. If Washington is se­ri­ous about re­duc­ing the risk of nu­clear con­flict, it should pur­sue a third op­tion— press­ing China to join the treaty. Fail­ure to do so will quickly make New START ir­rel­e­vant to nu­clear sta­bil­ity.

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