TMD in the Asia-Pacific: A View From China

Ritu Mathur, Research Scholar, JNU



This paper gives an insight into China’s concerns and reactions to the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system in the Asia-Pacific. The projected capabilities of the TMD system are embroiled in controversy and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) believes that it can seriously undermine China’s nuclear deterrent, making it vulnerable to attack. The historical enmity between Japan and China might resurface as Japan participates in the development of the TMD with the United States. The US is determined to deploy the TMD to meet "non-deterrable threats" and as a counter-proliferation measure. It is unlikely that China will be deterred from staking its claim on Taiwan to achieve complete reunification of the motherland. Confronted with a security dilemma, China is enhancing its missile capabilities and voicing its concern in international forums. Voicing its fears about space militarisation, violation of arms control agreements and missile proliferation, China has sought to build up global resistance to the development and deployment of the TMD. At the same time, PRC’s military is gearing itself to fight a "limited war" on its frontiers and enhancing military cooperation with France, Russia and Israel. Is the TMD necessary? Can the world afford to neglect an emerging great power’s security concerns? These two fundamental questions prompt the arguments produced in this paper.

TMD in the Asia-Pacific: China’s Perception

"Whatever their intentions or our intentions, actions or even realistically potential actions—on either side relating to the build up of nuclear forces necessarily trigger reactions on the other side".1 It is in the light of this observation by Robert McNamara that this paper endeavours to explore China’s perspective on the United States-Japan Joint Security Alliance (1996) and their decision to co-develop the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system.

The Theatre Missile Defence system projected to be deployed by 2005 A.D. and the revitalised United States-Japan Joint Security Alliance have aroused China’s suspicions on three counts. China, with its long memory of Western and Japanese aggression and domination in the 1840-1945 phase fears a militarily resurgent Japan operating under the shield of TMD. China’s fears also stem from the possibility that an operational TMD will wipe out its second strike capability and weaken its claims on Taiwan. Are these fears valid? What are the projected capabilities of the TMD system? Will Japan and the United States challenge China’s claims on Taiwan? Will the world witness another arms race? What will be its outcome? These questions prompt the arguments produced in the succeeding pages.

This paper is divided into four broad sections. Section one, offers a brief survey of China’s nuclear deterrent and of the proposed Theatre Missile Defence system. An appraisal of China’s threat perceptions vis-à-vis Japan, Taiwan and the United States is provided in section II. China’s burgeoning defence expenditure and strategic thinking to meet the challenge of TMD constitutes the subject matter of section III. Finally in section IV, the measures suggested to escape the security dilemma faced by China are discussed.

TMD and China’s Nuclear Deterrent

The Chinese view with suspicion Japan’s decision to research TMD jointly with the United States. Commander Jonathan Sears of the US Navy defines the TMD as "a system that provides both deterrence as well as war fighting capabilities against accidental, unauthorised, or deliberate limited ballistic missile strikes.2 In a TMD system, the velocity of the interceptor missile must not exceed 3 kilometers/second over any part of its flight trajectory; the velocity of the target missile cannot exceed 5 kilometers/second over any part of its flight trajectory; and the range of the target missile cannot exceed 3,500 kilometers. The Clinton administration asserts that the TMD will have a tested capability of hitting incoming warheads travelling at 5 km/sec, or missiles with roughly a 3,000 km range.3 However, the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defence Office has been unable to refute a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists which shows that a system with this capability will have little difficulty hitting warheads travelling at 7 km/sec, the rough speed of strategic warheads.4 In this context Theodore Postol’s observation that there are a number of parameters with which one can tinker to ensure a TMD system which has, "a more than residual capability against strategic ballistic missiles"5 deserves serious consideration.

China fears that a robust version of the ground based Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) or the Navy Theatre Wide Defence (NTWD) will neutralise China’s deterrent force. The PRC has a triad of nuclear forces. The land based leg of the PRC’s nuclear triad includes several varieties of intermediate and long range ballistic missiles like Dong Feng 3, 4, 5/5A, 15, 11 and 21/21A. The TMD could successfully block all of China’s mobile missiles, land or sea based, except the silo based Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) which could attain speeds capable of outstripping anti-ballistic missiles. The twenty or so ICBMs, being fixed targets, are vulnerable to preemptive attack by an enemy possessing sufficiently accurate anti-ballistic missiles.6 Chinese analysts have conducted simulations to study the impact of TMD on China’s strategic missile capability. Their studies show that the capability of TMD systems extends to strategic ballistic missiles.7 Thus China promises that the proposed TMD system "will trigger a new round of arms races and will be no guarantee for the nuclear disarmament process".8

Nuclear Umbrella or Nuclear Octopus

China has a visceral distrust of Japan and has not forgotten the bitter history of Japanese imperialism in China and Taiwan’s status as a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. China and Japan are still to settle their territorial dispute over eight uninhabited islands (known in China as Diaoyu and in Japan as Senkaku) located north of Taiwan and currently under Japan’s control. China believes that Japan, a leader in dual use technology and in possession of the most technologically advanced military arsenal among the local powers in East Asia, could easily emerge as a great military power in the next twenty-five years.9

On April 17, 1996, President Clinton and Prime Minister Hashimoto issued a Joint Communique calling for revitalisation of the US-Japan alliance to better guarantee the defence of Japan and the "Asia-Pacific region". For this purpose Article 6 of the Treaty permits United States’ armed forces to use military facilities and areas in Japan. Japan’s decision to contribute $36 million over the next three years towards the initial design analysis of a sea-borne missile defence system gives rise to suspicion that mobility of a sea-borne missile defence system could potentially be used to include Taiwan under the TMD umbrella.

China believes that Japan as a proto-nuclear state will acquire a ‘spear and a shield’ should the TMD system be deployed in Japan. Even if Japan does not go nuclear, the TMD will enhance its options against Chinese conventionally armed missiles in any crisis with China, say over the East China Sea or Taiwan. A corollary thought is that Japanese ability to defend against Chinese missiles (conventional or nuclear) aimed at Japanese or United States military targets in Japan will reduce the costs to Japan of supporting United States military operations in a crisis over Taiwan.

The Operational Guidelines (1997) to implement the revitalised alliance provides for Japan-United States defence cooperation under normal circumstances. This will enable the two countries to cooperate in undertaking humanitarian support activities in a disaster area. To Chinese observers a plausible scenario is Japanese participation in any international involvement to deal with a sudden collapse of the regime in North Korea. Humanitarian assistance to stabilise the Korean peninsula will lead to expanded influence over a unified Korea, which as Nam Chang Hee suggests, could be used by United States and Japan as a useful diplomatic asset in containing Korea-China relations should they get involved in disputes with China.10

Even a logistics role for Japan is unacceptable to China. Chinese specialists question. "How should Japan respond? Should it retaliate if a Japanese ship supporting United States forces is attacked".11 They believe that even a defensive role may erode Japan’s constitutional norms of self-restraint (e.g., 1,000 nautical mile limit on power projection capability, prohibitions on the military use of space, and tight arms exports controls) that have prevented Japan from realising its military potential.

"Operational cooperation" in situations in areas surrounding Japan can include intelligence gathering, surveillance and minesweeping missions. Another scenario envisaged by the Chinese is. "If a conflict flared up between China and Taiwan and the Chinese navy were to lay mines around Taiwan, Japanese naval aircraft could be deployed to sweep mines from the high seas for the purpose of protecting the United States’ navy or ensuring SLOC protection".12

A point to be noted, is that soon after issuing the Communique, Japanese and United States officials visited Russia to explain the purport of the declaration. No such diplomatic gesture or reassurance was extended to China. China’s concern was reflected in Shen Guofang’s statement, "We hope the bilateral defence arrangement between Japan and United States will not go beyond the bilateral nature and will not touch on any third party". He also asserted, "How to resolve the Taiwan problem is an internal Chinese matter".13

The Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto, during his visit to China in September 1997 refused to allay China’s fear of the alliance’s inclusion of Taiwan within its geographical domain. He ambiguously reiterated that the concept "surrounding area" as stipulated in the new guidelines is a "situational rather than geographical concept, it does not define any specific area".14 In its 1999 Defence White Paper, Japan has not excluded the possibility of launching preemptive strike as a measure of self defence.15

Thus, China is on "high alert about changes in the alliance, giving weight to conspiracy theories regarding the potential inclusion of Taiwan and the South China Sea in the alliance’s scope. China’s Liberation Army Daily accuses the revisionists in Japan of speedily strengthening the integration of the Japanese and American militaries. It clearly states that, "Japan’s policy of self-defence and its constitutional article giving up war are turning into mere scraps of paper".16

The Renegade Province

Kyung Won Kim observes, "Resolving territorial issues is not easy, since they often involve not only economic stakes, but national pride as well".17 He considers deeper stratetic tensions than the value of disputed territories as the root cause of territorial disputes, which lead to war.

Taiwan is not only prosperous, but is also very strategically located. It is geographically close to Okinawa, where the only overseas deployed United States marine contingent is stationed and where America’s largest overseas air base, Kadena, is located. Taiwan is the key to China’s maritime advance into the East Asia sea. While Taiwan wants "special state to state relations" with mainland China the latter is committed to a policy of "one country, two systems".

In a conflict with Taiwan the accepted military view is that China would rely on conventionally armed cruise or ballistic missiles to attack the ‘renegade province’. This plan can be thwarted by an advanced TMD system particularly if it is supported by space-based early warning. The prospect of acquiring TMD system is increasing the momentum for formal independence in Taiwan, thus increasing the likelihood of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. China has acquired short range ballistic missiles, like the M-9 and M-11 and long range land or submarine launched cruise missiles, suitable for attacking Taiwan. Taiwan already has Patriot II and is now seeking to acquire Aegis class warships to complement its plan for low altitude missile defences using Patriot II and III.

Former President Lee Teng Hui’s plea for Taiwan’s participation in the TMD disturbed the Chinese. Beijing, at every opportunity reminds the world that Taiwan is China’s "internal matter" and any country’s supply of any weapon system, including the TMD to Taiwan, will be considered a hostile move that seriously infringes on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.18

Roller-Coaster Ride

The United States and Japan may not go to war with China over Taiwanese independence, but the Taiwan Relations Act (1979) commits the United States to ensuring that "the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means".19 The United States ‘determination to stand by this commitment was indicated in March 1996 when it tacitly warned China not to use force to intimidate Taiwan, by moving two of its aircraft carrier battleships off China’s coast. This action has precipitated China’s concerns that the "TMD could be used as part of a United States preemptive strike doctrine in other regional conflicts".20 China is also suspicious of the United States projection of the TMD as a counter-proliferation measure, permitting more muscular responses against "non-deterrable threats".21

China has expressed its objection to the American Omnibus Appropriation Act; the FY 1999 Defence Authorisation Act; and the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (1999) which seek to include Taiwan in the United States’ TMD programme. While China has accepted United States’ presence in Northeast Asia as a restraining influence on Japan, it is critical of TMD in Northeast Asia which will expand the United States defence perimeter to China’s front-door, especially if it includes Taiwan.

China voiced its concern at the Conference on Disarmament on March 11, 1999, at Geneva where the Chinese representative stated that "some country in recent years has been intensifying its efforts in developing and testing weapons and weapon systems in outer-space, in particular, in the light of the latest disturbing developments prevention of an arms race in outer space has become more pressing and present".22 Treating space domination as a "hegemonic concept", China’s angst also extends to reinterpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which was an "ominous precedent in the field of arms control and disarmament".23

Awakening Dragon

Given that for every defence, there is a counter, the People’s Republic of China can find ways to meet the challenge of TMD in the Asia-Pacific though at a cost. China observers, like Alastair Ian Johnston, note some subtle changes in China’s nuclear doctrine. Although not officially endorsed, the position of "limited deterrence" seems to be gaining ground in China. A nuanced position of limited deterrence means "having enough capabilities to deter conventional, theatre and strategic nuclear war and control and suppress escalation during a nuclear war."24 Exercise of limited deterrence will also require China to target its opponents’ counter-value as well as counter-force targets. It is important to remember that the central aspiration of Chinese defence planning is to possess the capability to prosecute limited and local warfare under modern conditions. China’s military budget shows a real increase of 54 per cent from 1991.25 China has increased its military cooperation with Russia, Israel and France to meet its immediate military needs and acquire advanced military-scientific-technological know-how.

To counter the TMD, China can simply build more missiles. According to a 1997 United States’ Defence Department Report, China has developed the capability to build as many as 1,000 new ballistic missiles over the next decade.26 Since Japan and United States are developing the TMD system and both believe in preemptive strikes, for China there is "not a big difference" between National Missile Defence in the United States and TMD in Japan protecting United States forces in the western Pacific. Thus to maintain a credible deterrent, China needs to ensure that at least five nuclear warheads can attack the United States. The factor of five will help the People’s Liberation Army decide what percentage of warheads will be able to penetrate a United States ballistic missile defence and thus calculate the number needed to survive a United States pre-emptive first strike.27

To overwhelm missile defences, China also needs to deploy penetration aids and Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs). China has recently tested its high altitude, nuclear capable, strategic ballistic missile, Dong Feng-31 (DF-31) which has a shooting range of 8,000 kilometres. It has a high strike rate and, more importantly, it is road mobile and can be loaded with multiple warheads. Defence analysts believe that the DF-31 cannot be intercepted by the TMD which in its present stage of development is merely a low altitude defence system. China is also developing the submarine-launched Julang 2 and the mobile 12,000 km range DF-41. Each of these new ICBMs are intended to deliver 500-700 kilograms with yields of 200-300 kilotons.28

Despite being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, China has the necessary expertise and delivery capability to integrate chemical weapons successfully into its overall military operations. This will enable China to hit the enemy’s strategic defence by dozens if not hundreds of bomblets that could cap each missile challenging a TMD system. Moreover, the Chinese Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM), Medium Range Ballistic (MRBM) and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) can carry nuclear or conventional payloads, even as China works on developing more advanced warheads for its missiles including conventional submunitions. It is also believed that China has developed an indigenous technology for solid propellant missiles and is developing laser weaponry to use against reconnaissance and communication satellites on which United States forces so heavily depend. China’s superfast Russian supplied Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers and the new Dalian class will make Aegis-class ships vulnerable to attack. China is also interested in developing manoeuverable re-entry vehicles (MRVs) that can zig-zag to avoid interception. According to Paul Kaminski, "China’s Strategic Ballistic Missile capability is "limited" today, but it is emerging and growing".29

Give Peace a Chance

It is always difficult to reveal a systematic pattern of military expenditure between competitors. Nevertheless, efforts must be made to ease tense situations which lead to an arms race. On confidence and security building measures, China favours a "step by step" approach based on "the common aspiration for a peaceful international environment" for all participants. China is suspicious of multilateral fora and views them as platforms for a containment strategy to hamper growth of China as a great power, especially in the military sector. Nevertheless, despite the limited influence it can exercise on United States bilateral diplomacy (strengthening of the United States-Japan alliance), China has agreed to participate in trilateral track II security talks with these two countries.30

Considering the ‘roller-coaster relationship’ between China and United States, the traditional animosity between China and Japan, Thomas J. Christensen’s suggestion to exclude Taiwan from the United States-Japan Joint Security Alliance or United States development of TMD without Japan’s assistance deserves consideration.

Chinese scholars shrewdly suggest that China could also put forward a proposal for (medium range) missile free zone in Northeast Asia. In a missile free zone "interior basing of missiles" would serve as a major de-alerting measure and also keep mobile missiles out of the range of their targets. This could be seconded by a declaration of no-first-use of any kind of missiles, even conventional ones in this zone. In the Conference on Disarmament, China has put forward a proposal for establishment of an ad hoc committee by the Conference on Disarmament to "negotiate and conclude international legal instruments on prevention of an arms race in outer space".31

According to the Chinese analyst Yan Xuetong, if confidence and security building measures are not implemented in Northeast Asia, the TMD will encourage a preemptive strike strategy in this region, force China and Russia to develop their own TMD systems, and increase the number of missiles in their arsenals. TMD will encourage missile exports and undermine the implementation of Missiles Technology Control Regime.32

With its economic success China’s military power is bound to grow. It is aware of its current incapacity to undertake sustained power projection operations given its chronic problems with logistics and C3I. The PRC is a non status-quo power determined to achieve complete reunification of the motherland. While it is continuously striving to modernise, it has staked its territorial claims in an unambiguous manner. The TMD is a threat to China’s efforts at modernisation and territorial reunification. It is unlikely that China will remain a passive spectator when its core interests are threatened. TMD creates an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion in the Asia-Pacific. It encourages powerful actors in the international system to indulge in an arms race. It makes war a possibility.



1. Lawrence Freedman, "The First two Generations of Nuclear Strategists" in Peter Paret, ed, Makers of Modern Strategy, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 759.

2. Jonathan Sears, "The Northeast Asia Nuclear Threats", US Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 121/7/1, 109, July 1995, p. 45.

3. "First Agreed Statement Relating to the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems of May 26, 1972", September 26, 1997, <$abm-secl.htm>

4. Lisbeth Gronlund, George Leurs, Theodore Postol and David Wright, "Highly Capable Theatre Missile Defence and The ABM Treaty," Arms Control Today, vol. 24, no. 83, April 394.

5. Holly Porteous, "China’s View of Strategic Weapons", Jane’s Intelligence Review, vol. 8, n. 3, March 1996, p. 135.

6. Ibid.

7. For a relevant simulation report, see the Xingob, "THAAD Interceptors and ABM Demarcation Agreement: Does Velocity Limitation on Target Missile Make Sense?" paper delivered to the 6th China-ISODARSO Conference on Arms Control, sponsored by the ISODARCO and China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, Shanghai, October 28-November 1, 1998.

8. Porteous, no. 5, p. 134.

9. Thomas J. Christensen, "China, The US-Japan Alliance, and the Security Dilemma in East Asia", International Security, vol. 23, no. 4, April 1996, pp. 55-57.

10. Nan Chang Hee, "Japan’s Self Defence Forces Under New Defence Guidelines", Korea Focus, vol. 5, no. 6, November-December 1997, p. 36.

11. Banning Garret and Bonnie Glaser, "Chinese Apprehensions about Revitalisations of the US-Japan Alliance," Asian Survey, vol. 37, no. 4, April 1997, p. 391.

12. Hee, ‘Japan’s Self-Defence Forces’, pp. 39-40.

13. Garrett ‘Chinese Apprehensions’, p. 387.

14. Hee ‘Japans Self-Defence Forces’, p. 42.

15. Hee no. 14, pp. 39-40.

16. Shawn W. Crispin and Susan V. Lawrence, "In Self-Defence", Far Eastern Economic Review, vol. 162, no. 26, July 1999, pp. 22-24.

17. Kung Won Kim, "Maintaining Asia’s Current Peace", Survival, vol. 39, no. 4, Winter 1997-98, p. 56.

18. Jim Wolf, "Going Ballistic: US Anti-Missile Plan Sparks Protest Great and Small", Far Eastern Economic Review, vol. 62, no. 7, February 18, 1999, pp. 26-27.

19. F.J. Khergamvala, "US Left with Little Choice", The Hindu, August 15, 1999, p. 12.

20. Yan Xuetong, "Viewpoint-Theatre Missile Defence and Northeast Asian Security", The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 6, no. 3, Spring-Summer, 1999, p. 69.

21. John Pike and Marcus Corbin, "Taking Aim at the ABM Treaty: THAAD and US Security Arms Control Today, vol. 25, no. 4, May 1995, p. 8.

22. Statement by H.E. Mr. Li Changhe, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China in the Plenary Meeting of the Conference on Disarmament, March 11, 1999, p. 1, <>

23. Presentation by Mr. Wang Xia Oyu, at the WILPF Seminars on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, March 10, 1999, p. 3, <>

24. Ehsan Ahrari, "China Eyes NATO’s Nuclear Doctrine", Jane’s Intelligence Review, vol. 11, no. 4, April 1999.

25. Shulshy Khalilzad et al, The United States and a Rising China: Strategic and Military Implications, (California: RAND Project Air Force, 1999), p. 38.

26. Ibid.

27. Garret, "Chinese Apprehensions", p. 394.

28. "China Deadly Missile Arsenal", The Hindu, November 17, 1999, p. 12.

29. Christensen, n. 9, p. 73.

30. Statement by H.E. Mr. Li Changhe, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China in the Plenary Meeting of the Conference on Disarmament, March 11, 1999, <>

31. Xuetong, "Viewpoint: Theatre Missile Defence", pp. 72-73.

32. Shirley A. Kan and Robert D. Shuey, "China: Ballistic and Cruise Missiles", CRS Report for Congress, no. 97-391F, May 27, 1998, p. 1.