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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Bush Administration Blunts International Opposition to NMD
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Wade Boese

Two months into its term, the Bush administration's continued efforts to build foreign acceptance of, if not support for, U.S. deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) appear to be paying some small dividends. In mid-March, a top Chinese official, while still vehemently objecting to U.S. plans, welcomed talks with Washington on the issue. Meanwhile, Germany has edged away from its past opposition to NMD, and France has publicly quieted its criticism, although neither country has embraced the idea.

Unlike the Clinton administration, which largely neglected Asia on U.S. NMD plans and upset U.S. allies by focusing first on winning Russian acquiescence while taking their support for granted, the Bush administration from the outset has promised to consult fully with all interested countries. At the same time, Bush officials have emphasized they will not be dissuaded from their objective and have expressed confidence in their ability to persuade others to eventually accept a U.S. defense.

Starting a March 14 speech by noting, "It is no news that China is opposed to the U.S. NMD program," Chinese Ambassador Sha Zukang declared that he wanted to "make it clear that…we are ready to have a dialogue and discussion with Americans [on NMD]." The head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's arms control and disarmament department, Sha pointed out that only through consultations could the two sides "enhance mutual understanding and narrow down the differences." Sha, who in his speech equated NMD with "drinking poison to quench thirst," said Washington and Beijing need to talk "no matter how serious [the] issue."

While declaring that China does not want a confrontation with the United States over missile defenses, the ambassador warned that China will "not allow its legitimate means of self-defense to be weakened" and that Beijing wants to preserve "existing mutual deterrence" between China and the United States. Currently, China, which possesses roughly 20 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, fears a U.S. national missile defense, no matter how limited, could negate its small arsenal, making China vulnerable to a U.S. first strike or eliminating its ability to deter the United States from intervening militarily in Asia, particularly with regard to Taiwan.

Like the Clinton administration did, Bush officials have declared that the system will not be directed at China, but at other states, such as North Korea and Iran, that are pursuing long-range ballistic missiles. Sha rejected this assurance, saying the United States has "over-exaggerated" such threats. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that only those who would threaten the United States or its friends and allies should be concerned about a U.S. defense.

Sha repeated long-standing Chinese charges that a U.S. missile defense could start another arms race, including one extending into outer space, and could possibly spur increased missile proliferation. Sha said that for those reasons China, which is already known to be modernizing its strategic forces, hoped Washington would abandon its plans. He added that China "should have reason to be confident that we can deal with it" if there is a U.S. deployment.

The ambassador further said that China does not oppose theater ballistic missile defenses (TMD) "utilized to protect a country's troops and for air defense purpose[s]," and he applauded the Russian proposal for a European TMD. But Sha warned against any U.S. transfer of TMD to Taiwan and against any system that could play a role in or serve as a "front" for a wider missile defense.

A week after Sha's speech, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen raised the missile defense issue with both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington. A senior administration official told reporters March 22 that at the meeting Bush reiterated that a defense would not be a threat to China. When asked whether there was now a better understanding between the two countries on the issue, the official replied "I wouldn't go that far…you'd have to ask his side if they felt that."

Visiting Washington a week later on March 29, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed interest in Germany playing a future part in U.S. missile defenses if they were deployed. "Certainly, when it comes to the involvement and also participation in terms of industrial policy, certainly we'll be interested," Schroeder answered when asked by a reporter whether Germany would be willing to participate in a system.

However, Schroeder noted there were many issues that needed to be looked into, such as whether a missile defense will work, who will be covered, and how it will impact global disarmament and relations with Russia and China. Bush described himself as "grateful" that Schroeder was interested in the U.S. point of view, and the chancellor, who has been a leading European voice expressing reservations about U.S. missile defense plans, said he was "very pleased" that the president was open to discussion about the questions he had posed.

Quite vocal about its missile defense concerns last year, France has quieted its public protests following the Bush administration's promise to hold consultations with allies. A French official explained that France still has the same concerns it expressed in the past about the "potential negative effects" of missile defense but that it will raise those issues in private. Like Berlin, Paris seems to be reserving judgment on U.S. plans until it has had an opportunity to discuss them with Washington.

Russia has continued to voice its opposition to U.S. plans, and on March 6, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, a critic of missile defenses, noted after a meeting with Powell that she had not changed her position. Lindh also said that the European Union presidency, which Sweden currently occupies, does not want to see the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty threatened.

South Korea Clarifies Position on NMD

After South Korean President Kim Dae Jung signed a February 27 joint statement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that called for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to be "preserved and strengthened," Seoul rushed to explain that it is not opposed to a U.S. national missile defense (NMD).

Kim's signature of the statement was widely reported as evidence that South Korea was siding with Russia against U.S. missile defense plans, but Seoul announced the next day that it was "engaged in a serious review of the NMD issue" and that reports characterizing South Korea as opposing or indirectly criticizing missile defenses "have no factual ground." Seoul further pointed out that the controversial statement was a direct quotation of other statements that Washington has signed over the past year, including one that was issued by the nuclear-weapon states at the 2000 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference.

After meeting President George W. Bush at their March 7 summit in Washington, Kim reiterated to reporters that the joint South Korean-Russian statement "in no way reflects our position on NMD issues" and added that he "regretted the misunderstanding." In a joint U.S.-South Korean statement issued that day, the two leaders recognized that there were new threats in the world and that countering them would require a "variety of measures, including active non-proliferation diplomacy, defensive systems, and other pertinent measures."

A March 23 South Korean press report later quoted Seoul's foreign minister, Lee Joung-binn, as saying that the United States had requested a statement of support for NMD at the summit but that South Korea had declined. Lee subsequently retracted his remark, but on March 26 he and 10 other cabinet ministers and senior presidential secretaries were replaced by Kim in a move interpreted as an attempt to better relations with Washington. —W.B.