There is a growing consensus in the United States and among its chief European allies that some level of missile defense protection is warranted if it proves technically and financially feasible, but the prospect of missile defense constitutes a wild card in Asia. Depending on a number of factors, missile defenses can fortify or weaken international cooperation, diminish or rekindle big power rivalry, provide more certainty or less in a world challenged by regional unrest and global terrorism. The manner in which the United States interacts with China over the course of the development and deployment of National Missile Defense (NMD) will be important to the Asian security landscape, writ large, and a major factor in the overall U.S.-China strategic relationship over the long term. It is in U.S. national interests both to shape China’s responses to missile defenses and to consider those responses in devising America’s own plans, so that the net result is to enhance, or at least not degrade, U.S. national security.
The main task Washington and Beijing face today is to find new footing in a bilateral relationship so determinative to Asian peace and stability. It is in the interest of both sides, and a responsibility of both, to find ways to guide their relations back toward a more constructive and less confrontational path than has been the case for much of the past several years. China’s condemnation of terrorism against the United States in the wake of September 11th and willingness to support efforts against international terrorism have helped. So, too, has the expressed willingness of the Bush Administration to engage China in strategic talks in the wake of the President’s decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty (though it must be noted that only following the October 25, 2002 Crawford Summit meeting between President George W. Bush and President Jiang Zemin is there a prospect that such talks may actually take place). Despite these constructive developments and an evident commitment by leaders in Washington and Beijing to pursue constructive relations, however, both countries have a long way to go in overcoming accumulated suspicions of the other’s intentions. In that context, missile defense remains, along with the Taiwan question, one of the most fraught issues for the U.S.-PRC relationship and for peace and stability in East Asia.