Missile Defenses and East Asian Security

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1998.

North Korea's launch of a multistage ballistic missile last summer generated interest throughout East Asia in defending against incoming missiles. Who knows where President Kim Jong-Il might aim one?

More recently, reports that China was building up missiles acrossthe strait from Taiwan generated still more interest. Japanese officialshave already decided to include funds for anti-ballistic missile research intheir upcoming defense budget. Yet to be decided in Tokyo is whether they'llspend even more to participate in the deployment of a U.S.-coordinatedmissile defense shield. The governments of South Korea and Taiwan also haveshown some interest in joining such a system.

Given North Korea's unpredictability and longer term concerns aboutthe People's Republic of China, the desire of other East Asian countries toget under an American-sponsored missile defense shield is understandable.But providing such an umbrella is not necessarily in our best interests.

Instead of building a U.S. missile defense system to protect friendsand clients in Asia, Washington should simply sell the appropriate hardwareto friendly countries so they can deploy their own systems. Not only wouldthat make more sense financially, it would reduce the risk of unpleasantdiplomatic and strategic side effects.

Financially, a policy of getting Japan, South Korea and possiblyTaiwan to help fund a U.S.-controlled missile defense program invites "freeriding." The stronger our apparent commitment to such a system, the morelikely it is that the other partners will try to to saddle Americantaxpayers with most of the bill. We've run into the free-riding problemagain and again with the other members of NATO.

Even worse, allowing East Asian allies to hunker down behind a U.S.missile defense shield would perpetuate, and probably make even worse, thealready unhealthy security dependence they have on America. South Korea, forexample, continues to rely on the United States for key components of itsnational defense, even though it has a population twice as large as that ofNorth Korea and an economy nearly 30 times greater than the North's.

Despite facing a heavily armed and unpredictable totalitarianneighbor, South Korea responded to the economic downturn caused by the EastAsian financial crisis by reducing its already inadequate defense budget.In the event of war, Seoul envisions a U.S. troop deployment almost as largeas their own current active duty force.

Japan's long-standing security dependence on the United States isequally striking, and the much-touted new U.S.-Japanese defense guidelineswill not change much. In the event of an East Asian conflict that does notinvolve an attack on Japanese territory, Japan will merely provide nonlethallogistical support (fuel, spare parts and medical supplies) for U.S. troopsand allow U.S. forces to use Japanese facilities. The revised defenseguidelines do not end Japan's status as Washington's military dependent;they merely allow Japan to be a somewhat more helpful dependent.

The last thing the United States should do is create a newopportunity for security dependence on the part of Japan and South Korea.Yet that is the inevitable effect of shielding them with a U.S.-run missiledefense system.

Perhaps the most serious objection to a U.S. regional missile shieldis the adverse effect such an initiative would have on America's relationswith China. Even if U.S. officials decided to exclude Taiwan from coverage,Beijing would react badly. PRC leaders would regard the deployment of aregional missile defense system as an unambiguous signal that the UnitedStates intended to adopt a military containment policy against China. Atbest, Washington's commitment to such a shield would severely damageSino-American relations; at worst, it could lead to a cold war-styleconfrontational relationship.

Including Taiwan in the system would virtually guarantee the latterscenario. Indeed, that step would entail more than a small risk of an armedconflict with the PRC in the future.

True, Chinese officials would hardly be thrilled about a U.S.decision to sell missile defense hardware to its East Asianneighbors--especially if sales to Taiwan were approved. But at least thatstrategy would not create the impression that the United States was layingthe foundation for a regional military alliance directed against China. AU.S.-controlled shield would inevitably create that impression.

Making missile defense hardware available at full cost to friendlygovernments that believe it is necessary for their security is, therefore, abetter option on both financial and strategic grounds.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington and is the author or editor of 10 books on international affairs.