While the aftershocks of an international arbitration ruling against its South China Sea territorial claims are still being felt across East Asia, Beijing must now grapple with the prospect of an apparent “trilateralization” of defense mechanisms between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul in the region. Moscow finds itself in a more delicate position than Beijing since US anti-missile network covers its western and eastern territories.
China and Russia find themselves in the same boat while opposing the United States’ recent efforts to advance its missile defense complex along both flanks of Eurasia. Some already envisage a possible cooperation between Beijing and Moscow to counter what many Russian analysts have dubbed Washington’s “double containment” from the Euro-Russian border to the East China Sea.
However, as it is hard not to see a single thread connecting the US and US-related defense shields in the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe, in particular regarding their industrial development, it is not a foregone conclusion that the Chinese communist leadership and the Kremlin will manage to coordinate a common response to Washington’s anti-missile challenge.
The US missile defense in expansion mode
The sequence of measures recently undertaken by the US Pentagon explains well why Beijing and Moscow are becoming increasingly nervous about Washington’s missile defense program.
On August 9, the US Department of Defense revealed that Lockheed Martin had secured a $36 million contract to place Aegis Ashore equipment in Poland by the end of 2018. Aegis Ashore is the ground-based component of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System; its deployment on the Polish soil is part of the Phased Adaptive Approach initiative to provide Europe with a missile defense system, US president Barack Obama’s alternative to the plan launched by his predecessor George W. Bush.
In late July, the Polish government announced that it would conclude an agreement with the US government by the end of 2016 to buy two Raytheon-made Patriot air and missile defense systems. Warsaw intends to develop an anti-missile defense platform together with the US help; apart from the medium-range Patriot missiles, it also aims to secure a new short-range missile defense system.
On July 19, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency stated that the Department of State had cleared the sale to Japan of 246 SM-2 air defense missiles. If the US Congress green-lights the arms deal – worth $821 million – the SM-2 interceptors will be deployed on the six destroyers, equipped with the Aegis Combat system, now at Tokyo’s disposal, and on two other Aegis naval vessels currently under construction.
Earlier in July, South Korea upheld its intention to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the US missile interceptor system, in the southeastern county of Seongju. Lastly, in May, a US battery of SM-3 IB rocket interceptors got up and running in Romania; integrated into the transatlantic missile defense umbrella, this anti-missile land-based defense unit is yet another element of the European Phased Adaptive Approach.
The US dual policy in Asia and Europe
Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are working hard to improve their defense missile cooperation and strengthen the interoperability between their own systems. In mid-July, a land-based PAC-3 rocket interceptor battery was moved by Okinawa to an American Air Force base in Gunsan, South Korea, as part of a joint military exercise. Never before did Washington relocate anti-missile units from Japan to South Korea. In late June, in the lead-up to the US-promoted Rim of the Pacific drills, the three nations’ navies had conducted their first joint ballistic missile defense exercise in the waters around Hawaii.
Washington and Seoul have repeatedly stressed that the THAAD system is directed only toward North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threat. Japan would also be considering the acquisition of THAAD to underpin its anti-missile system against Pyongyang’s possible attacks.
In remarks in May, Frank A. Rose, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said that “the United States and Japan are also working closely together to develop the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, which will make a key contribution to the European Phased Adaptive Approach”; a stark evidence that Washington’s missile defense policies in Eastern Europe and East Asia go hand in hand on an operational basis.
Chinese and Russian fears
The expansion of the US anti-missile capabilities in Eurasia poses similar problems to China and Russia. While the aftershocks of an international arbitration ruling against its South China Sea territorial claims are still being felt across East Asia, Beijing must now grapple with the prospect of an apparent “trilateralization” of defense mechanisms between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul in the region.
China has always voiced opposition to the employment of THAAD units on the South Korean soil; Beijing argues that the US anti-missile system includes radar with a range extending far beyond the Korean peninsula into the Chinese territory, thus threatening its deterrence force and, in turn, the regional balance of power.
In general, the Chinese military is worried that the upgrading of Japan’s and South Korea’s indigenous rocket missile systems would complement and reinforce the US missile defense network in Asia-Pacific, increasing Washington’s defense capacities over vital air and sea-lanes in the area.
Russia shares many of the same strategic concerns as China, not least on the deployment of THAAD batteries in South Korea. But Moscow finds itself in a more delicate position than Beijing, given that the US anti-missile network covers both its western and eastern territories.
The Kremlin does not buy the American argument that the European defense shield is aimed to protect the members of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization against ballistic threats from Iran. In addition, the Russian government fears that some of its European neighbors will develop their own missile defense systems and integrate them into the wider US anti-missile umbrella.
Still, if the US is trying to form an anti-Chinese coalition in East Asia with the help of long-standing allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines), new partners like India and even an old enemy like Vietnam, Washington would certainly approve the creation of a sub-regional defense block within the European Union (EU) including Sweden, the Baltic states, Poland and Romania, which are among the most anti-Russian EU countries.
Sino-Russian unbalanced cooperation
In light of the US attempt to enhance its missile defense framework, it is probable that Beijing will accelerate with the build-up of its offensive and defensive rocket apparatuses, possibly with Moscow’s collaboration.
In the opinion of some Russian military experts, the Kremlin could indeed provide Beijing with its anti-ship, land-attack and anti-submarine Kalibr cruise missiles to penetrate the US-led missile defense system in the Western Pacific – in this case, however, Washington could retaliate by sending lethal defense weapons to Ukraine, which is faced with a Russian-backed rebellion in its eastern regions.
By contrast, in this dangerous play of military adjustments and counter-adjustments, where Chinese and Russian national security interests appear to be converging, it is doubtful that China will overtly support Russia’s claims in Eastern Europe, as Beijing cannot alienate partner countries in the region, which represent key transit points for its planned Silk Road infrastructure project.
Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, The Jerusalem Post and the EUobserver, among others.