US-advocated missile defenses need not destabilize Asia, but may not protect Taiwan or South Korea in meaningful ways and could provoke a US-China crisis, a new study released this week says.
US President George W. Bush jettisoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to aggressively build a missile defense system for the US and is urging allies to establish similar systems on their territories.
This has been a particular issue with Asia, where North Korea's stated determination to manufacture nuclear weapons and missiles is seen as a threat to regional security and a central motive behind Bush's missile defense agenda.
In the study, the Atlantic Council of the US, a research institute, said, "If it continues to be managed well, the development of missile defenses in Asia need not lead to instability."
This will require Washington to continue discussing its plans in public and consulting closely with key states.
Most missile defense systems being developed will not be ready for several years and even when deployed, China, the main US rival in Asia, "should be confident they do not pose a threat to its deterrent capabilities," the report said.
Nevertheless, some negative Chinese reaction to US missile defenses is "unavoidable," even though the capability of defensive systems under development "will be very limited" against Chinese missiles, it said.
Especially if the US sells Taiwan a missile defense system, this "would likely set off a major crisis in US-Chinese relations," the researchers concluded.
The report examines the cases of Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and India, which are all considering missile defense systems.
The North Korea threat created new impetus for Japan to consider missile defenses but the decision is far from made since many Japanese fear rising tensions with China, it said.
Researchers cautioned the US against pressuring Japan, saying this could prove counterproductive.
South Korea, unconvinced the North is a serious threat, has had little interest in missile defense and this is unlikely to change soon, the report said.
Even if attitudes changed, "a meaningful defense of South Korea against ... the North Korean threat is infeasible using systems now being deployed and developed," the report said.
North Korean weapons can "cover the whole of South Korea in large numbers, making the possibility of effective national [missile] defense highly problematic," it said.
However, the US, with 37,000 troops in South Korea, will continue to deploy its own defenses to protect high-value targets like air fields, it added.
Politics plays a big role in any decision by Taiwan to deploy missile defenses because of its rivalry with China.
Threat from China
But the military threat is real, since Beijing has 400 missiles in range of Taiwan and could easily augment this.
But the report warned missile defense systems "would provide for only very limited defense" given Chinese capabilities.
The report's authors were Walter Slocombe and Jacques Gansler, former defense undersecretaries; retired Air Force General Michael Carns, and the council's Richard Nelson.