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Theater Missile Defense in Japan: Implications for the U.S.-China-Japan Strategic Relationship

Authored by Colonel Patrick M. O'Donogue. | September 2000

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The role of theater missile defense (TMD) in the U.S.-China-Japan strategic relationship has taken on increased importance as its development and deployment by the United States and, most likely, Japan becomes inevitable. The August 1999 agreement between the United States and Japan to cooperate on research and development of a sea-based TMD system raised the stakes in what has been, so far, a ?war of words? on the need for TMD in Japan, between the United States and Japan, on one side, and China, on the other. American and Chinese perceptions of the efficacy and utility of theater missile defense in national security planning differ radically. U.S. officials and scholars argue that missile defense promotes national and international security. The Chinese, however, reject the assumptions and logic of U.S. support for national missile defense (NMD) and TMD.

U.S. nuclear deterrent strategy relies on both the U.S. strategic nuclear triad and U.S. ballistic missile defenses, with the latter reinforcing the stabilizing effects of deterrence. Unlike the United States, China relies exclusively on land-based missiles as deterrents. So China perceives a strengthened U.S. defense against her land-based missiles as destabilizing, because such defenses deprive China of her power to deter. However, U.S. officials perceive a growing missile threat from ?rogue nations,? while the threats of accidental and unauthorized launches remain. The United States also has an inherent obligation to protect forward-based and forward-deployed forces against the threat of ballistic missile attacks. The 1998 North Korean Taepo Dong-1 launch gave credibility to such threats.1

Chinese officials argue, however, that these threats are not serious enough to justify NMD and TMD development. 2They insist NMD and TMD pose serious negative implications for global arms control and nonproliferation efforts, specifically the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FM CT). U.S. officials counter that arms control and nonproliferation are in the interests of the community of nations, and are not threatened by NMD and TMD.3

Growing technological cooperation between the two nations means inevitable Japanese help with development and eventual deployment of TMD. At a minimum, lower-tier TM D deployments in Japan will be continually upgraded to protect U.S. troops and military assets. The Chinese have expressed a willingness to accept lower-tier TMD deployment that protects U.S. bases. But China opposes the development and deployment of upper-tier TMD systems, especially sea-based versions, which could be employed to protect Taiwan.4 Shu Zukang, Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry?s Department of Arms Control, best expresses the Chinese position:

We do not envisage a dispute concerning development of what we would call genuine TMD. Here I am referring to those anti-theater missile systems used solely in a limited area. What China is opposed to is the development, deployment and proliferation of antimissile systems with potential strategic defense capabilities in the name of TM D that violate the letter and spirit of ABM and go beyond the legitimate self-defense of relevant countries.5

This statement lends de facto legitimacy to the sale of Patriot PAC-3 missiles, a lower-tier capability, to Taiwan. The Chinese insist, however, that Taiwan?s status as part of China obviates its entitlement to the independent receipt ofarms. But China seems confident that it maintains sufficient force, both in aircraft and ballistic missiles, to overwhelm any Taiwanese defense, which renders such sales more an issue of principle than practicality.

Japanese adoption of TMD introduces new dynamics into the U.S.-Japan alliance. If brought to fruition in a rational way, TMD will precipitate a broad range of operational initiatives, will require changes to bilateral doctrine and will redefine the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). TMD poses the same implications for bilateral integration at the operational and support levels as the Defense Guidelines do, with even more tangible consequences for the bilateral alliance. TMD will undoubtedly influence the way the United States and Japan plan, procure, consult, and operate in the future.6

This study describes the historical precedence that led to a decision to develop TMD and seriously consider its deployment in Japan. It then explores the strategic setting that shapes the positions of Japan, China and the United States with regard to TMD. Next, it analyzes possible effects of TMD on the U.S.-Japan alliance. It then reviews Chinese objections to TMD and their implications for the U.S.-China relationship. Following this, it explores the U.S. options for TMD development and deployment. The study concludes with a discussion of the desirability of the United States maintaining a firm, open dialogue with China that addresses cogent concerns that, if carefully handled, offer reasons for optimism.


By persistently increasing U.S. capabilities and judiciously incorporating increased Japanese capabilities in the U.S.-Japan alliance, the United States can fulfill its obligation to its forward-deployed forces and allies in Northeast Asia. The United States needs to be cautious, however, about what new roles Japan plays in the alliance, for TMD will fundamentally change that relationship. The ultimate responsibility of an American President is to provide for the safety of the American people and the armed forces by deterring attack on the homeland and allies. By increasing U.S. capabilities, the United States will be better able to handle future regional crises and prevent them from happening. Consistent actions in the face of inflammatory rhetoric will avoid the destabilizing effects of an arms race and backsliding on arms control and nonproliferation agreements. Ultimately, such actions will contribute mightily toward long-term peace and stability in Northeast China.


Editor?s Note: For the reader/researcher seeking additional information on this subject, please review the following published article: Thomas J. Christensen, ?Theater Missile Defense and Taiwan?s Security,? Orbis, Winter 2000, pp. 79-90.

1.Barbara Opall-Rome, ?One on One,? Defense News, February 1, 1999, p. 22.

2. ?Missiles, Theater Missile Defense, and Regional Stability. Second U.S.-China Conference on Arms Control, Disarmament and Nonproliferation,? linked from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies; available from http://www.cns.miis.edu/cns/projects/eanp/conf/uschina2/index.htm;Internet; accessed December 7, 1999, p. 2.

3. Ibid., p. 3.

4. ?Japan Moves,? China Daily, November 18, 1998, p. 4.

5. ?Pyongyang?s Missile Program Threatens Area Peace,? Indian Express, October 9, 1998, sec. A, p. 1.

6. Patrick Cronin, Paul Giarra, and Michael Green, ?Alliance Implications of Theater Missile Defense,? in The U.S.-Japan Alliance: Past, Present, and Future, Patrick Cronin and Michael Green, eds., New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999, pp. 171 -1 72.