Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin included the following short paragraph on missile defense in a lengthy joint statement that covered a wide variety of other topics. It appeared in the section of the statement devoted to international affairs.
“With a view towards the historical experience and practice of building a new type of great power relations, and with a sense of historic responsibility for world peace and humanity’s future, the two sides call on all nations of the world to … deepen mutual understanding, coordination and cooperation on the question of missile defenses, urge members of international society to be prudent on the issues of deploying and beginning cooperation on missile defenses, and oppose one country or group of countries unilaterally and unlimitedly strengthening missile defenses, harming strategic stability and international security. We stand for the collective confrontation of the challenges and threats from ballistic missiles, preferring to confront the proliferation of ballistic missiles within the framework of international law and political diplomacy, where the security of one group of nations cannot be sacrificed at the expense of another group of nations.”
The language echoes past statements issued by Russia and China, which are concerned about the intentions driving what, from their perspective, appears to be massive U.S. fiscal and technical investments in a highly questionable technology. Neither country is particularly concerned about the technical capabilities of the currently deployed or tested missile defense technologies. Experts in both countries understand the vulnerabilities of these systems. What worries defense planners here in China, and presumably in Russia, is the almost fanatical U.S. devotion to missile defense technology. Political and military leaders see the monies spent, not the technology they have actually purchased, as sufficient cause to wonder if some surprising new breakthrough might be on the horizon. Otherwise, my Chinese interlocutors routinely ask, why would the United States be wasting so much money on it, especially in a time of supposed fiscal austerity?
The persistence of Chinese concerns about U.S. missile defense plans cannot be assuaged by pointing out the technical limitations of the current systems. They know them already. The Obama administration should stop lecturing and start listening to what the Chinese are actually saying, which is that they don’t want to wake up one day and suddenly find themselves vulnerable to a U.S. first strike. It isn’t the reality of missile defense, but the U.S. dream of missile defense, that keeps Chinese military planners up at night.
Chinese analysts are not assured their U.S. counterparts accept the idea of mutual vulnerability between the United States and China, which is the basis of deterrence. That leads to concerns that the level of U.S. commitment to missile defense, which China believes is higher than is justified by the North Korean and Iranian threats, is credible evidence this massive, decades-old defense effort is actually focused on them.