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Thursday, 6 July, 2000, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
US missiles: China's view
Military parade in Beijing
China is keen to display its missile technology
By James Miles

A US decision to go ahead with the deployment of a National Missile Defence (NMD) system, undoubtedly affects its relations with China.

This could lead to heightened tensions over a range of issues from weapons proliferation to Taiwan.

But it is unlikely that China's own plans to modernise its nuclear arsenal would be substantially affected.

Chinese prostesters burn US flag following bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade
The Chinese embassy bombing heightened anti-US feelings
Despite US attempts to justify the NMD programme by citing threats from 'rogue' states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, Beijing, in public at least, describes it as nothing other than a disguised attempt to render China's small nuclear arsenal useless as deterrent against the United States.

It is believed that China has only about 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets across the United States and another 20 or so that could reach the US northwest and northern Pacific. If the NMD system works as advertised these could easily be knocked out.

In practice, however, these particular missiles have long been of little if any deterrent value as far as the US is concerned.

They are located in silos that are vulnerable to pre-emptive strike, whether nuclear or conventional. They are powered by volatile liquid fuel which is stored separately from the rockets.

Furthermore, China does not have the early warning capability to detect a nuclear attack in time to launch its ICBMs before they are knocked out.

'New generation'

Beijing did not begin to deploy ICBMs capable of reaching America until the early 1980s. It had conducted its first successful nuclear test in 1964 at the height of the Sino-Soviet rift and indeed well into the 1980s it had continued to regard Russia as posing the biggest nuclear threat.

It was only in the 1990s that the United States began to emerge in Beijing's view as the foremost potential enemy.

Beijing has already positioned about 200 short range ballistic missiles on the coast facing Taiwan

In order to make what it calls its "limited nuclear deterrent" force more credible, therefore, China has been engaged in recent years in a modernisation programme aimed at enabling its ICBMs to survive a pre-emptive strike and stand a reasonable chance of penetrating an adversary's defences.

This has involved developing the ability to fire the missiles from mobile launchers and equip them with multiple warheads.

The new generation of Chinese ICBMs likely to be deployed within the coming decade will be solid fuelled and easier to launch at short notice.

It would have been na´ve of China to engage in such an upgrading of its nuclear arsenal without building in the possibility that the US would deploy anti-ballistic missile systems.

Should America go ahead with NMD deployment, therefore, China's plans are unlikely to be drastically altered.

It was already likely that China would increase the number of its long range warheads by a factor of 10 or more in the coming years.

This would not impose a crippling economic burden on China and would remain consistent with its doctrine of "limited nuclear deterrence," that is maintaining only just enough nuclear weapons to deter a potential aggressor.

Chinese 'suspicions'

China has responded with similar anger towards US proposals for a Theatre Missile Defence system to protect its forces in East Asia, particularly towards suggestions that such a system should embrace Taiwan.

It is unlikely that China would respond by flagrantly violating international arms control agreements

But again it is unlikely that actual deployment of TMD would lead to a major change in China's plans for missile deployment.

Beijing has already positioned about 200 short range ballistic missiles on the coast facing Taiwan and the number is increasing by about 50 a year - easily enough to penetrate any missile defence system that the US might put in place.

Beijing would therefore regard an American decision to press ahead with NMD or TMD more as a political rather than a military challenge.

At a time of growing suspicions in Beijing that Washington is bent on "containing" China and dominating the post Cold War order indefinitely, such a decision would be seen as further evidence of America's "hegemonistic" ambitions.

This could further damage the already deeply troubled relationship between Beijing and Washington and make it more difficult for the two sides to co-operate on key issues of concern to the United States, not least the handling of the Taiwan issue and the proliferation of missile and nuclear technology.

It is unlikely that China would respond by flagrantly violating international arms control agreements.

But it would certainly feel even more inclined to exploit the grey areas of such accords as US officials believe it does at present by transferring missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.

James Miles is Research Fellow for Asia at The International Institute for Strategic Studies

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Adam Brookes
"Experts warn that China will respond by building better missiles and more of them"
US Missile Defence

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