Paris, Wednesday, February 3, 1999

Yes, U.S. Missile Defense for Asia

By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune

LONDON - The debate about whether to deploy missile defenses is shaping up as one of the most contentious strategic issues of the next decade. The main theater of the debate will be Asia.

First, there is a proposal to deploy theater missile defenses to protect U.S. forces in Asia. This would have to include Japan and South Korea, and probably also Taiwan.

Second is the Clinton administration's plan, disclosed last month, to spend $4 billion researching and testing a national missile defense program over the next six years; $6.6 billion is to be set aside for possible future construction of the system. North Korea's missile test last August showed that it was making faster progress than expected in developing missiles capable of attacking not just Japan but U.S. territory as well.

An element of diplomatic duplicity surrounds the real rationale for missile defenses against threats that are more limited than that posed by the former Soviet Union. The United States does not want to alarm China by overt talk of systems that could neutralize Chinese nuclear missiles, but Beijing understands that most of the discussion of a North Korean threat is really concerned with China.

Chinese officials react vehemently to any talk of American missile defenses. Washington will not let Beijing have a veto on defining what is in the U.S. strategic interest. Japan's willingness to begin serious exploration of theater defenses shows that it is getting fed up with China trying to dictate the future shape of Asian security.

Beijing has only itself to blame for moves by the United States and its Asian friends to develop missile defenses. China has been conspicuously unhelpful in restraining North Korea because it has cockily assumed that the United States would have to keep compromising with Beijing on strategic issues for fear of making matters even worse on the Korean Peninsula.

China's failure to be transparent about its own defense buildup and its unwillingness to open a trilateral government-to-government dialogue with the United States and Japan on Asian security have increased long-term worries about what seems to be a Chinese strategy of playing for time while it grows stronger.

The fact that China has now indicated a willingness to talk to the United States about national missile defenses and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty suggests that Beijing may be realizing that it has pushed its luck too far.

There is much uncertainty about whether missile defenses will be effective or too costly. But there is little reason for the United States not to proceed with serious research and even early development of anti-missile systems. U.S. allies in Asia should welcome these efforts if only because they make it more likely that the United States will stay to defend its friends in the region.

In Europe, U.S. allies are prepared to sustain and modernize NATO; a NATO summit in April is to ratify a new strategic concept. In Asia, the United States has to act much more on its own. If it is expected to stay in Asia, it will have to find ways to defend its homeland from Asian adversaries.

If Washington heeded Beijing's demands that it not build an anti-missile shield, it would be more likely to withdraw U.S. forces from Asia and end its key role in maintaining the balance of power in fragile region.

It seems increasingly obvious that an American departure is what China wants. So allies and friends in Asia should help the Americans to develop effective protection from missiles.

The writer is director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program and director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.