Missile Defenses and East Asian Security

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1998.
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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 across the strait from Taiwan generated still more interest. Japanese officials have already decided to include funds for anti‐​ballistic missile research in their upcoming defense budget. Yet to be decided in Tokyo is whether they’ll spend even more to participate in the deployment of a U.S.-coordinated missile defense shield. The governments of South Korea and Taiwan also have shown some interest in joining such a system.

Given North Korea’s unpredictability and longer term concerns about the People’s Republic of China, the desire of other East Asian countries to get 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 friends and clients in Asia, Washington should simply sell the appropriate hardware to friendly countries so they can deploy their own systems. Not only would that make more sense financially, it would reduce the risk of unpleasant diplomatic and strategic side effects.

Financially, a policy of getting Japan, South Korea and possibly Taiwan to help fund a U.S.-controlled missile defense program invites “free riding.” The stronger our apparent commitment to such a system, the more likely it is that the other partners will try to to saddle American taxpayers with most of the bill. We’ve run into the free‐​riding problem again 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, the already unhealthy security dependence they have on America. South Korea, for example, continues to rely on the United States for key components of its national defense, even though it has a population twice as large as that of North Korea and an economy nearly 30 times greater than the North’s.

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

Japan’s long‐​standing security dependence on the United States is equally striking, and the much‐​touted new U.S.-Japanese defense guidelines will not change much. In the event of an East Asian conflict that does not involve an attack on Japanese territory, Japan will merely provide nonlethal logistical support (fuel, spare parts and medical supplies) for U.S. troops and allow U.S. forces to use Japanese facilities. The revised defense guidelines 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 new opportunity 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 missile defense system.

Perhaps the most serious objection to a U.S. regional missile shield is the adverse effect such an initiative would have on America’s relations with China. Even if U.S. officials decided to exclude Taiwan from coverage, Beijing would react badly. PRC leaders would regard the deployment of a regional missile defense system as an unambiguous signal that the United States intended to adopt a military containment policy against China. At best, Washington’s commitment to such a shield would severely damage Sino‐​American relations; at worst, it could lead to a cold war‐​style confrontational relationship.

Including Taiwan in the system would virtually guarantee the latter scenario. Indeed, that step would entail more than a small risk of an armed conflict 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 Asian neighbors–especially if sales to Taiwan were approved. But at least that strategy would not create the impression that the United States was laying the foundation for a regional military alliance directed against China. A U.S.-controlled shield would inevitably create that impression.

Making missile defense hardware available at full cost to friendly governments that believe it is necessary for their security is, therefore, a better 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.