Strategic posturing: why would China muzzle the guard at its eastern gate? Will it further trigger a a loop of proxy containment?
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Dangerously outside the missile defence loop
By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, published Dec 17, 2012
CHINA has rejected the international clamour to slap fresh sanctions on North Korea in response to that country’s launch of a long-range rocket last week. Beijing’s main argument is that the launch was “regrettable” but doing anything about it won’t be “prudent”.
China’s prevarication will triumph, if only because neither the United States nor Washington’s Asian allies have any interest in clashing with Beijing over the matter. But that does not mean that the US is paralysed. For every additional North Korean defiance of international law and non-proliferation agreements provides another impetus to a gigantic US-led effort in building missile defence systems. And the main losers from this unfolding technological arms race will be both North Korea and China.
The dream of creating a shield capable of making a country impregnable to enemy missile attacks is almost as old as the rocket industry itself. In common with all military developments, the moment a new capability emerges everyone gets to work on an antidote. During the 1960s, the Soviet Union probably held a lead in missile defence efforts. But by the 1970s, the advantage swung decisively to the US and has remained so ever since.
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Still, all previous missile defence efforts faced similar hurdles. The first was the sheer complexity of the technology: Regardless of the phase at which an incoming enemy missile was intercepted and destroyed, the requirement was, essentially, to hit a bullet with a bullet – just about the most difficult of all military concepts. And because a functioning system requires a vast assemblage of different radars – some providing early warning, some tracking incoming devices and some guiding their destruction – the financial outlay appeared endless.
But the biggest obstacles were strategic. No system, however sophisticated, is likely to offer complete protection. At best, missile defence shields are only supplements to other defence measures. However, the creation of missile defence systems has a destabilising effect on global security, encouraging countries to spend more on their rockets in the hope of overwhelming the defences of their opponents.
Not just superpowers
BECAUSE the drawbacks were deemed to outweigh the potential advantages, the Soviet Union and the US jointly decided to curtail work on missile defence systems. Essentially, the two superpowers agreed that the best way of avoiding a nuclear exchange between them was, paradoxically, not by improving their defences but by leaving their major population centres vulnerable to each other’s attacks. And although then US President Ronald Reagan tried to challenge this deal in the early 1980s with his Strategic Defence Initiative – the so-called Star Wars – this was ultimately aborted. The agreement not to develop a missile defence shield survived until 2002, when then President George W. Bush withdrew the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to the fury of Russia and the consternation of many other nations.
It is tempting to pin the blame for the revival of missile defence efforts on Mr Reagan and Mr Bush, the archetypal American “neo-cons”. But the reality is more complex, for the times have changed and so has the technology. Many nations now possess various missile capabilities, so the question is no longer merely that of preserving a balance of terror between two superpowers, as was the case during the Cold War.
Furthermore, the technology has both improved and got cheaper, so hopes for satisfactory interception rates are now higher. Consequently, few nations are resisting the temptation; the world is essentially divided between countries that admit to having missile defence programmes and those that still prefer pretending they don’t. Either way, the US remains – by far – in the lead.
New missile repellents
AND ominously for Russia and China – the two nations most directly affected by America’s capabilities – the US is acting as a cog in three parallel missile defence projects at the same time, all drawing on a variety of existing technologies and all sucking in the ingenuity of Washington’s global allies.
The first is the US’ own indigenous project, initially called National Missile Defence, but subsequently modified and renamed by President Barack Obama in 2009. The system consists of 13 interceptors on US soil, plus a variety of other installations around the world. Washington has no pressing need to move fast on this project, largely because until now the only countries with missiles capable of hitting US territory were China and Russia, and both are in a predictable strategic posture with the US.
However, the US also financed the development of Israel’s missile defence efforts and particularly the Iron Dome system, which achieved an astonishing 88 per cent “hit rate” against missiles fired at Israel by the Gaza-based Hamas organisation last month.
The technology is certainly impressive: Within a fraction of a second, Iron Dome can detect a rocket launch, predict its trajectory and anticipated impact point and choose whether to launch an interceptor missile. Iron Dome targets only rockets that are estimated to hit populated areas. And although its operational costs are big, the set-up costs are manageable: To cover its entire territory, Israel will need about US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion), hardly likely to break the bank.
And yet another US-led missile defence development is reaching fruition in Japan. Unlike Israel’s Iron Dome, which is designed to destroy slow, low-flying rockets, the Japanese one aims at intercepting faster and higher-flying ballistic missiles. It is also much more expensive: Japan is estimated to have spent US$12 billion on it over the past decade. But there is no doubt that it is highly sophisticated. As Mr Masayuki Iwaike, who runs Japan’s missile defence units, recently admitted at a restricted meeting with Western defence specialists, his men were able to track all the previous North Korean long-range missile launches since 2006 and would have had “no trouble intercepting them”.
Chinese military planners would be right to shrug their shoulders and assume that, regardless of whether North Korea was or was not allowed to develop nuclear and missile capabilities, the US would have invested in missile shields. Correct, but only up to a point – for the course of US missile defence efforts is directly influenced by North Korea’s behaviour.
One of the conditions for the US-Japanese cooperation on missile defence is that Japan would be transferring this technology to other Western-allied nations. So, if North Korea continues with its defiant acts, both Pyongyang and Beijing will be confronted with an increasingly hardening circle of missile shields, all based on similar technologies.
Meanwhile, the US is also planning to install new powerful “X-band radars” in Asia. A Pentagon spokesman has recently claimed that these systems “are designed to defend against a missile threat from North Korea; they are not directed at China”. But, inexplicably, the X-band radars are better for guiding the interception of missiles, rather than merely provide “early warning”, as the US claims. Furthermore, most of the radars are actually being positioned in southern Japan and, potentially, the Philippines.
They are hardly the likely trajectory for a hypothetical future North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, although perfect for containing China’s own missile capabilities.
WHAT seems to be happening in Asia is almost a mirror image to what has already happened in Europe, where Russia’s reluctance to contribute to any international effort designed to stop Iran from acquiring missile and nuclear capabilities has resulted in the development of a US-led missile shield involving most Europeans, and ultimately capable of reducing Russia’s own strategic room for manoeuvre.
In short, both China and Russia are discovering that their instincts of protecting wayward allies – be they North Korea or Iran – may carry a heavy strategic cost.
For if China remains unperturbed by the proliferation of missile technology, it should not be surprised if the US responds in kind, by presiding over the proliferation of missile defence technology.