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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

It's Not An Arms Race Yet
But control agreements are close to breaking
CARLYLE THAYER is a regional security specialist at the U.S. Defense Department's Asia
Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu

The security of the Asia-Pacific region is threatened not by a conventional arms race but by the possible breakdown of non-proliferation agreements. In the next decades there is a good chance the number of nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems will increase dramatically.

Four separate but interrelated dynamics are at work. The first is the continuing build-up of medium range missiles by China to intimidate Taiwan. The second is the attempt by the United States to develop a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system against rogue states, and China's response to the plan. The third involves the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology by North Korea. The fourth are efforts by India and Pakistan to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

All of these developments carry with them the potential to weaken if not undermine the international arms control regime negotiated during the Cold War. The scheme is discriminatory and not universal. India and Pakistan by choice are not members. The U.S. is not a signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Undermining the present arms control regime could well result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Asia-Pacific.

Japan will contribute funds to BMD research. Japan also has the technology to move quickly to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to do so. Chinese defense commentators openly assert that their ballistic missile force is already targeted on Japan because of this potential. Taiwan has tried secretly to develop its own nuclear weapons but stopped under U.S. pressure.

China fears that the provision of BMD technology to Taiwan is specifically designed to provide protection to the island nation so it can declare its independence. China also fears that BMD is designed to neutralize its nuclear deterrent against the United States.

Taiwan's response to the ballistic missile threat has been to request technology now being developed by the U.S. for BMD. Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act the United States is obligated to provide "arms of a defensive character" and to maintain its own capability "to resist any resort to force" against Taiwan. Chinese officials have stated that the provision of BMD technology to Taiwan will result in a step up of China's force modernization efforts.

China plans to counter the development of a BMD system by increasing the number of ballistic missiles and warheads. It will also develop various technologies to penetrate a BMD defense such as multiple warheads and decoys. That could trigger a regional arms race. Russia shares similar concerns. The 1972 ABM Treaty that it signed with the U.S. prohibits the development of a BMD system. If the Americans proceed along the BMD path Russia would pursue a similar strategy to China's -- and Russia and China could share nuclear technology or provide it to other states.

In 1998 India and Pakistan set off nuclear explosions. Both countries have developed ballistic missile technology and it is only a matter of time before it is mated to nuclear weapons. A crisis between the two raises the possibility of an accidental launch. India is developing a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent" against Pakistan and China, eventually deploying 130 to 165 warheads. Any increase in China's nuclear arsenal and India will increase its own.

In order to avert an arms race China must be persuaded to halt its missile build-up, while the U.S. must forgo a BMD in favor of a leadership role on disarmament. Progress on these two fronts will allay Russian concerns and lower the incentives for India to match China.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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