The coming arms race in Asia.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Dec. 14 2001 12:43 PM

The China Syndrome

All eyes were on Russia yesterday as President Bush announced that the United States is withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pursue its missile-defense program unfettered. How would the Kremlin react? Withhold support in the war against terrorism? Withdraw from other arms-control treaties, as it once threatened? Nope. Vladimir Putin accepted the fait accompli with only mild protest. The administration called his reaction "very encouraging." Another American foreign policy triumph!

Unfortunately, Russia was never the country to worry about anyway. As Putin pointed out, Russia's missiles could swamp the missile-defense system now planned, so Russia needn't fear America's using the shield in conjunction with an offensive strike. China is another story. With only a handful of ICBMs, it has theoretical cause for concern. It also has two other things the Russian government doesn't have right now: ample suspicion of the United States and enough money to salve that suspicion by building lots of nuclear missiles.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

The administration has long known this. In fact, a few months ago, the New York Times reported that Bush had decided to drop all resistance to China's nuclear modernization program in exchange for China's accepting his missile-defense plans. (Subsequent administration "clarifications" failed to refute the thrust of the Times reporting.)

At the time, this decision didn't seem glaringly, spectacularly stupid, because "at the time" was before Sept. 11. Since 9/11, one would think, there might have been a re-evaluation. After all, preventing terrorists from getting a hold of weapons-grade nuclear materials has shot to the upper regions of our priority list. And there clearly is some correlation between the amount of nuclear-weapons development in the world and the chances of terrorists doing this.

But can't we trust China's Communist Party to keep its weapons program under tight control? Isn't control the one thing authoritarian governments are good at? You might have said the same thing about the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Then—poof!—things fell apart. And God knows China is entering a period of stress. Membership in the World Trade Organization will impel economic liberalization that is long-run auspicious but short-run dicey. Meanwhile, those Muslims in China's west won't get any less restive as the evolution of information technology continues its ongoing empowerment of subnational groups.

Leaving aside what happens in China, there is the much-discussed scenario in which a Chinese nuclear buildup leads to an Indian buildup, hence a Pakistani buildup, and so on. And, since 9/11, the prospect of more weapons-grade materials floating around in the Pakistani vicinity hasn't grown more appealing.

The other big post-9/11 problem with missile defense is the sheer diversion of resources. In the end, this system is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And 9/11 has given us lots of good rival candidates for money and energy, ranging from top-flight airport security to radically boosted global spying capacities to the sort of "nation building" that might change places like Somalia from terrorist hideouts to policeable states.

Given all the above, how does the Bush administration persist in its quest for missile defense in the wake of 9/11? Simple—just assert that 9/11 actually underscored the need for missile defense. "As the events of September the 11th made all too clear," Bush said yesterday, the greatest threats to America come "from terrorists who strike without warning, or rogue states who seek weapons of mass destruction."

Um, could you run the "rogue states" part by me again? I agree that their seeking weapons of mass destruction is a big problem. But the problem is their giving the weapons to terrorists, not their sending the weapons over on a missile, with a return address. Indeed, if there was ever any doubt in Saddam Hussein's mind about how launching a nuclear strike would affect his life expectancy, the war in Afghanistan has presumably dispelled it. And as for that keystone of missile-defense logic—that some offbeat national leader like Hussein might actually welcome dying in a retaliatory strike—9/11 and its aftermath have only confirmed the principle that martyrdom is something political leaders encourage but don't indulge in; pawns like Mohammed Atta immolate themselves, while alpha males like Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar head for the hills. (Bin Laden could yet choose spectacular suicide if the alternative is getting killed ingloriously by an Afghan soldier, but the fact that he bothered to assassinate Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud before downing the twin towers indicates that he planned on surviving the blowback.)

I've argued in another context that the alleged conversion of George Bush from "unilateralist" to "multilateralist" has been greatly exaggerated. Yesterday's ABM announcement casts the conversion story into further doubt, a point made by Charles Krauthammer in this morning's Washington Post (though Bush's continued unilateralism, of course, puts Krauthammer in a rather more festive mood  than it puts me in).

But, wait! The Bush administration said yesterday that it would engage Chinese leaders in high-level talks to soothe their fears about American intentions. Maybe this last-minute burst of multilateralism can head off an Asian arms race! Maybe so—but there was a simpler, cheaper, and better way to do that.

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