In Countering Nuclear North Korea, US Walks Tightrope With China
As North Korea continues developing its nuclear weapons programs, the United States and its allies are looking to improve their ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to keep pace.
Plans to improve the BMD in the Asia–Pacific region may bring along new problems of its own, however. Defense experts are concerned that improvements to the defensive system may cause the Chinese regime to increase its development of nuclear weapons.
“We’ve seen this phenomena take place in the past,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in a phone interview.
“There is a risk,” he said. “If that system is deployed and improved over time, China may become increasingly concerned [the system] can counter its ballistic missile capabilities in the region, and it can cause the Chinese regime to increase its number of ballistic missiles.”
The focus of U.S. policy on the BMD is to defend against a limited missile strike from a rogue state—a country like North Korea, according to an April 3 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. In its current state, China and Russia could overwhelm the BMD with their large nuclear arsenals.
“This system is designed to deal with a limited attack from North Korea. It is not designed to defend against China’s nuclear missile inventory,” said Kimball.
The current problem is that since the BMD was established, North Korea has continued building its nuclear arsenal. Kimball said that as things stand now, even North Korea’s nuclear weapons could potentially overwhelm the BMD by just using sheer numbers.
“It’s likely a North Korean attack would succeed, and it’s possible such an attack could include nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.
The Chinese regime criticizes the BMD, saying it lessens its own control in the Asia–Pacific region. The Chinese regime said the BMD system is strengthening U.S. alliances with countries including Taiwan and Japan, and that the missile defense system is making other countries—particularly Taiwan—less afraid of China.
According to the report, the Chinese regime believes the system to defend against nuclear missiles “is undermining China’s conventional missile deterrent against Taiwan, and thus emboldening those on Taiwan who want to formalize the island’s separation from China,” said the report.
Chinese nuclear expert Wu Riqiang proposed an agreement in 2013, according to the report, which reflects some of the general positions on the BMD.
Wu proposed that the United States keeps the effectiveness of the missile defense system at a low level, “enough to counter North Korea’s unsophisticated ICBMs without threatening China’s more advanced strategic missiles.”
“In return,” Wu said, “Beijing will agree to refrain from expanding its nuclear arsenal.”
While Wu’s statements were just a proposal, they do seem to reflect the Chinese regime’s general stance on the BMD, namely that if the system were improved it would likewise increase its nuclear arsenal to ensure it could overwhelm it.
Still, the entire discussion could be irrelevant, since the Chinese regime has already been aggressively developing and deploying new nuclear weapons systems.
In December 2014, the Chinese regime held the first test flight of its new DF-41 ballistic missile, which can strike any part of the United States. In February, the Chinese regime revealed a new mobile ballistic missile launch system. And the Chinese regime is expected to soon deploy new systems for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Vulnerable to Attack
According to Jack Winnick, a consultant for NASA and the U.S. government on nuclear issues, the threat of nuclear attack today is so prevalent that a BMD may not serve much use.
The United States and other counries are already highly vulnerable to nuclear attacks through subversion. Winnick said “it’s so easy these days, through subversive movements.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese regime may also be helping North Korea undermine the BMD. The Pentagon warned in 2013, according to the report, that the Chinese regime is “working on a range of technologies to attempt to counter U.S. and other countries’ ballistic missile defense systems.”
It adds that, if the Chinese regime were to share technology with North Korea that undermines the missile defense system, “the United States would view such a development as ‘highly escalatory.'”
Yet, regardless of the Chinese regime’s response and other threats, the United States also has a responsibility to protect its allies. In light of North Korea’s improvements to its nuclear arsenal, it may be obligated to improve nuclear defenses in the Asia–Pacific region.
“As a matter of policy and as a result of treaty commitments, the United States extends deterrence to protect its allies in the Asia–Pacific region,” states the report. “In essence, this means the United States will help deter threats to these allies and, if deterrence fails, use U.S. assets to defeat these threats.”