Build Missile Defense Now

Steven Hayward

June 1, 1999

The release of the Cox Report on China’s theft of secret American nuclear technology brings to mind the old remark by the poet Edna St. Vincent-Millay that “history isn’t one damn thing after another; it’s the same damn thing over and over again.” But while everyone looks at the historical parallels between this most recent espionage and the Rosenbergs’ heist of atomic secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union 50 years ago, there are other historical parallels and ironies that should be even more troubling.

What should we do now that China has our technology in hand? We can’t very well get the genie back in the bottle. Hence it is entirely predictable that a familiar burlesque will unfold here at home. As China begins to build up its ballistic missile and nuclear warhead inventory, we will inevitably be told that the answer is to begin a new “arms control process” to build “trust” between the U.S. and Beijing. All of the same clichés we heard about the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s will be revived-how our tensions are the result of “misunderstanding,” how the Chinese are xenophobic paranoids who are “insecure,” as though tiny Taiwan or Japan were imminently prepared to overrun the 1.2 billion people on mainland China. Call it the Yogi Berra policy: déjà vu all over again.

No doubt the arms control “community,” which has felt bereft of purpose and meaning since the passing of the Soviet Union, would love to have the excuse to become the centerpiece of U.S. superpower relations once again. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency of the State Department has been gathering cobwebs for the last several years. But meaningful arms control with China would be even more difficult than it was with the Soviet Union. We might succeed in limiting China’s long range missiles that can reach the U.S. through negotiation, but by what right would we demand that China limit its short-range weapons, too? Since China’s objective is to dominate Asia, limiting long range missiles is not likely to enhance the security of the region.

The crunchier policy alternative would be to put even more emphasis on ballistic missile defense here at home as well as overseas. Here the irony emerges. When a limited ballistic missile defense was first proposed back in the mid-1960s, President Johnson’s defense secretary Robert McNamara said we needed it not to guard against the Soviets, but rather to guard against the growing missile threat from . . . China! Johnson and McNamara only grudgingly accepted the need for missile defense under pressure from Congress, and took pains to ensure that we wouldn’t upset the Soviet Union with the puny missile defense system that was proposed at the time.

Recently President Clinton grudgingly accepted the need for missile defense under pressure from Congress, and like his predecessors of 30 years ago, emphasizes that it is needed against missile attacks from “rogue” nations. Is China in the category of a “rogue” nation? It is too delicate question for a straight answer at the moment. (China is wondering whether we are a “rogue” nation for having bombed their embassy in Belgrade.) Presumably a missile defense system, if it in fact gets deployed over the bureaucratic hurdles that will be set in its way, will be effective against Chinese missiles. But the niceties of superpower diplomacy will require that we not be too blunt with how we discuss the matter.

Meanwhile, the risk to the security Taiwan has never been greater. One of the good effects of President Nixon’s famous opening to China in 1972 was that making China’s new relationship with the U.S. valuable to the Chinese made it less attractive for China to attack Taiwan: they would lose too much. With U.S.-China relations now at a low ebb, China’s disincentive to attack Taiwan is at low ebb, too. With U.S. forces tied down in a peripheral war in the Balkans, a U.S. threat to defend Taiwan lacks credibility.

Our China policy is in a shambles. President Clinton campaigned for office proclaiming the bankruptcy of President Bush’s China policy. Yet whatever the shortcomings of Bush’s foreign policy (chiefly a lack of emphasis on human rights), Clinton’s has been even more bankrupt. Early attention to the problem of Chinese espionage might have averted this crisis-in-the-making. But like Clinton’s acceptance of Chinese campaign contributions, he consciously decided to look the other way. Clinton has shown in the Balkans that he is adept at blundering into a half-hearted war. Concerned foreign policy watchers are now holding their breath that he doesn’t repeat the feat in Asia while we wait for serious missile defense to be deployed here at home.

Steven Hayward is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.