As the United States has considered options for a missile defense system, it was natural enough to focus first on gaining the acquiescence of Russia, its ABM Treaty partner. But the result is that China has been insufficiently taken into account. Unless greater attention is now directed to the PRC’s possible reaction to missile defense-and to the potentially significant implications of that reaction for US national security-the substantial achievements gained in bilateral relations over the years could be eroded.
This study does not seek to assess the pros and cons of missile defense systems, per se. Rather, assuming such defenses will ultimately be deployed in some configuration, it addresses how their architecture might be approached so as to enhance American national security and minimize reactions inimical to US interests.
The reality is that, despite recent improvements, setting US-PRC relations on a firm foundation remains a challenge in light of the deep suspicions each country holds regarding the other’s intentions. In this context, missile defense is not simply one of the many issues on which the two countries disagree, but it is one which, if handled maladroitly, could become a fundamental driver of a downward trend in future Sino-American relations.