Can China's Tolerance Last?

Bates Gill

Many observers seemed surprised by China’s muted reaction to the Bush administration’s December 13 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. But analysts should not have been surprised. Since early 2001, Beijing had steadily toned down its anti-missile defense rhetoric and over the past year had gradually come to tolerate—while still opposing—the U.S. missile shield effort. The ability of the United States and China to keep a lid on heated and damaging rhetoric opens the door to a more serious dialogue that, if carefully managed, may help avert undesirable outcomes arising from the changing strategic nuclear dynamic between them.

With the ABM Treaty withdrawal announcement past, the questions are, how did China come to this more subdued position, and can it last?

Toning Down the Rhetoric

China’s official response to the ABM Treaty withdrawal was moderate—in many ways even more conciliatory than Moscow’s reaction. It consisted of four main points. First, Beijing maintained its opposition to the buildup of strategic missile defenses by the United States. Second, official Chinese statements noted that the ABM Treaty has served as a cornerstone of strategic stability and that its abandonment risks a destabilizing arms race. Third, Beijing urged Washington to take heed of the international community’s views on this issue, pointing to the November 29 United Nations General Assembly resolution which for the third year in a row called for the strengthening and preservation of the treaty. Finally—an indication of China’s concern with “high politics” and “atmospherics”—the official Chinese statements emphasized the important international role of the United States and China, which share common interests in maintaining global peace and which should find solutions to their differences through constructive dialogue.

It was left to the Foreign Ministry spokesman to issue the “toughest” language, expressing “regret” and “concern” over “worrisome” developments. Although China among the nuclear powers stands to lose the most in the face of U.S. missile defenses, its leaders did not even go so far as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who characterized the ABM Treaty withdrawal decision as a “mistake.” Instead, Chinese President Jiang Zemin took the high ground in his officially released statements, expressing China’s willingness “to work with other countries to make efforts to safeguard world peace and stability.”

The basis for this relatively gentle response had been laid over many months. Beginning in late 2000 and accelerating in early 2001, official and unofficial U.S. interlocutors had sent clear messages to their Chinese counterparts about the likely direction of missile defense plans in the United States, especially with the arrival of the Bush administration in Washington. These messages included the point that, although Beijing was in no position to veto U.S. missile defense plans, Chinese policies and practices—positive or negative—would have some impact on how missile defense affected the U.S.-China relationship.

As for the Chinese side, the outlines of a more “friendly” Chinese approach toward the United States were already in evidence in early 2001, with a more serious, nuanced, and flexible understanding of missile defenses a part of that overall change in tone. During exchanges in the early part of 2001, Chinese strategists identified a number of steps they hoped the United States would take as a way of gaining greater Chinese acquiescence regarding U.S. missile defense plans. In essence, the Chinese response to the ABM Treaty decision was muted because the Bush administration has taken a number of these steps.

First and foremost, the Chinese needed reassurances about the tenor and direction of U.S.-China relations overall and about the intended “targets” of the missile defense system in particular. Symbolism and rhetoric are important to China. Regardless of the impact of missile defense on China’s deterrent, Beijing wished to avoid being characterized as a “rogue state” or being seen as the justification for missile defenses.

The EP-3 spy plane incident notwithstanding, the Bush administration has made important strides to place the U.S.-China relationship on a firmer footing: the administration quietly dropped its “strategic competitor” rhetoric, President George W. Bush made his long-planned trip to China (even though the United States was at war), and the two sides have consistently emphasized the positive in their bilateral ties. The president and Secretary of State Colin Powell have said they wish to “build constructive, forward-looking relations” with Beijing and to have relations that are “candid, constructive, and cooperative.” Importantly, Secretary Powell has repeatedly stated that U.S. missile defense plans are not aimed at China but rather are intended to protect against rogue missiles.

Second, in early 2001 China voiced considerable unease about the provision of missile defenses to Taiwan, both in terms of specific “theater” systems, such as the PAC-3 or the Aegis sea-based air defense system, and the larger concern of substantively “linking” Taiwan with U.S. missile defense components. In April, the Bush administration deferred a decision on providing more advanced missile defenses to Taiwan and modified the controversial yearly arms sales ritual into a more flexible, “as needed” process.

Third, China hoped that it would be treated with respect due a Great Power and a nuclear-weapon state and that its interests would be taken duly into account by U.S. decision-makers. Since last May, the Bush administration has frequently consulted with its Chinese counterparts at the presidential, secretary, undersecretary, and assistant secretary levels, including Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Avis Bohlen’s trip to Beijing in mid-December following the ABM Treaty withdrawal announcement.

Perhaps most importantly, President Bush called President Zemin on December 13, a few hours before the Rose Garden announcement on the ABM Treaty. Informing the Chinese before the announcement and suggesting the need for “strategic dialogue” on the issue not only helped to reassure Beijing, but also offered the Chinese “face” and the appearance of being a player at the Great Power table.

Notably, China’s hopes for reassuring signals from the United States focus primarily on political, as opposed to military-technical, issues. Consistent with past Chinese foreign policy, the most important thing was to “get the atmospherics right” and worry about technical details later. In any event, most Chinese strategists are not concerned about missile defense for what it might mean militarily—believing that the system, even if technologically feasible, is several years off and can be defeated through qualitative and quantitative improvements to China’s missile arsenal. Rather, missile defense for China has been about high politics: what it symbolizes in terms of U.S. strategic intentions toward China and what it means for U.S. commitments toward Taiwan. In the near term, at least, it appears Beijing has been reassured on these points.

Beyond the specifics of bilateral discussions on missile defense, the overall U.S.-Chinese relationship has also experienced an upturn, another contributing factor to Beijing’s restrained reaction to the ABM Treaty withdrawal announcement. While relations have not returned to the levels of 1997-98, when the two sides exchanged high-profile state summit visits, matters are much improved from 1999, when a host of problems plagued the bilateral relationship—from the Cox Committee report and its allegations of nuclear espionage to the inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Even the issuance in early September 2001 of U.S. sanctions against a Chinese company for its proliferation activities made hardly a ripple in relations between Washington and Beijing. Firmer footing for the bilateral relationship was only strengthened in the wake of the September 11 attacks: Washington focused its strategic attention on the war on terrorism, and China took a number of constructive steps in support of U.S. efforts.

Russia’s relatively subdued reaction was another factor weighing in Chinese minds. In the past, senior Chinese strategists publicly expressed their confidence that Russia would persevere to preserve the ABM Treaty, and Moscow and Beijing were repeatedly on record at the highest levels in their joint opposition to American missile defense plans. But by late summer, if not earlier, the Cyrillic writing was on the wall, and Chinese policy-makers had little choice but to follow Moscow’s lead. In addition, Putin and Jiang directly conversed prior to President Bush’s December 13 call to the Chinese leader, which probably also helped keep the Russian and Chinese reactions similar in tone.

And lest we forget, China has a number of other pressing issues on its domestic agenda that are more immediate and, for the survival of the Chinese Communist Party, more “strategic” in nature than the more distant and uncertain prospects for ballistic missile defense. With China’s entry into the World Trade Organization on December 11, the Beijing leadership formally added a set of new challenges to an already lengthy list of domestic socioeconomic difficulties. Moreover, China is already well into the intrigues and factional politics leading up to the next major change in Chinese leadership, slated to take place at the quintennial 16th Party Congress in early fall 2002.

In a word or two, Chinese leaders have a lot on their minds, and it is not time to rock the boat. Little was to be gained, and much could be lost, by aggressive confrontation with Washington on this issue. When all is said and done, the United States remains China’s most critical bilateral relationship—economically, diplomatically, militarily—making it very much in Beijing’s interest to downplay differences and seek stable and constructive interactions with Washington.

Thorny Issues Remain

So far, so good, right? Perhaps. While the “atmospherics” are about as good as can be expected, there are many potential difficulties in maintaining strategic nuclear stability between the United States and China.

First, in spite of all the reassurances, China still does not know precisely what Washington’s missile defense architecture is going to look like and what its impact will be on China’s missile forces, conventional and nuclear. The ABM Treaty withdrawal decision does clarify some matters. At least Beijing’s strategists can begin planning for a more robust strategic response than might have otherwise been the case had the ABM Treaty been preserved or modified. But that response will have to be largely reactive as the Bush administration’s framework for missile defense comes into view, piece by piece. Importantly, some of these steps may negatively effect overall U.S. security interests.

The most problematic “architecture” question for China concerns how Taiwan will figure into American missile defense plans. Beijing already presumes that Taiwan will likely enjoy some kind of more advanced missile defenses from the United States, though the specific circumstances under which they might be extended, and in what form, remain uncertain at this point. It appears China will be most vehemently opposed to the provision of systems, such as the PAC-3 or Aegis-equipped naval vessels, that might overtly link U.S. and Taiwanese defense capabilities in what China would view as a revival of the pre-1979 Washington-Taipei mutual defense treaty.

Second, it is unclear what precise steps China will take as part of its ongoing nuclear weapons modernization program. Here again, we can expect Chinese reactions to be partly gauged to U.S. missile defense plans. One thing seems certain: if Beijing is able to deploy even a modestly modernized second-generation arsenal, it will transform the U.S.-China strategic nuclear relationship in significant ways. The expected transition from a largely fixed-site, liquid-fuel arsenal to a land-mobile, solid-fuel force will provide Beijing with a far more reliable and formidable deterrent than it has known in the past. But China’s strategic modernization will probably not stop there. China may succeed over the next 10 to 15 years in deploying a viable “second leg” of its deterrent in the form of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and it may deploy multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles. At a minimum, we should expect an increase in the number of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that China fields.

The next decade is also likely to see further improvements in China’s command, control, reconnaissance, and early-warning capability, including the possible introduction of space-based assets to support these functions. It is also likely that China will devote more resources to developing countermeasures, such as decoys, shrouded warheads, and possibly anti-satellite weapons, to defeat missile defenses. Importantly, these development are likely to affect China’s nuclear doctrine, which will transition from a fundamentally “minimalist” posture to a more variegated deterrent: a posture of credible minimal deterrence toward the continental United States and Russia; a more offense-oriented and possibly war-fighting posture of limited deterrence with regard to China’s theater nuclear forces, especially in response to a Taiwan contingency; and an offensively configured, pre-emptive, counterforce war-fighting posture of “active defense” or “offensive defense” for the conventional missile forces.1

These ongoing and likely modernization steps will result in a second generation of far more robust, ready, and survivable nuclear weapons for China. At this point, it is unclear how far and how fast that process will unfold and how it will be interpreted in Washington (let alone other capitals, such as New Delhi, Moscow, Tokyo, and Taipei).

The uncertainties of China’s future proliferation practices will also affect the bilateral strategic nuclear dynamic. Although Beijing seems to have curbed much of the country’s sensitive nuclear- and missile-related exports, significant concerns persist. In some cases, Chinese assistance goes to those countries whose missile programs American defenses will be designed to thwart, such as Iran. It is also possible that Chinese exporters will transfer countermeasure technologies, further complicating the U.S. missile defense effort. China may find itself having to choose between actions that are profitable and actions that will further spur missile defenses.

Finally, the future U.S.-China strategic relationship will remain captive to the significant distrust found just beneath its surface, with plenty to go around on both sides. In the United States, questions about China’s rising power; its political system; its posture toward Taiwan; its proliferation record; and, significantly, whether to accept a situation in which China can hold American cities as nuclear hostages continue to divide the nation and its political leadership, including the current administration. In China, it is not at all clear that the next generation of one-party technocrats is more open, more “globalized,” or less nationalistic than their predecessors, and concerns about American “hegemonism” and global influence have hardly diminished in the wake of September 11.

In short, in spite of the current mood, the United States and China enter a post-ABM Treaty world in which their strategic nuclear relationship will be fundamentally different than what they have known in the past, and many sensitive and complicated uncertainties will persist through this transition period.

Still, the current situation in U.S.-China relations offers some room for confidence. Gauging China’s reaction over the past year, there is a narrow window of opportunity for the two sides to establish a more serious strategic dialogue, come to terms on comfortable offense-defense levels, and inject greater reassurance and confidence into their strategic relationship. A formal, ABM Treaty-like set of agreements or understandings will not be possible in the near term because neither party is prepared to go in this direction as yet. But the newly established “strategic dialogue” process between Beijing and Washington will offer a regular opportunity for the two sides to state clearly that they do not view one another as enemies (which will require the deflection of more hawkish views in both capitals) and to work toward the common cause of strategic stability.


1. This argument is fully elaborated in Bates Gill, James Mulvenon, and Mark Stokes, “China’s Strategic Rocket Forces: Transition to Credible Deterrence,” in Richard Yang and James Mulvenon, eds., The People’s Liberation Army as Organization (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, forthcoming).

Bates Gill is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. His next book, Contrasting Visions: United States, China, and World Order, is forthcoming from the Brookings Institution Press.