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At this week’s meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok, China will seek support for its opposition to U.S. plans to develop a theater missile defense. That is consistent with China’s use of ARF as a forum for undermining support for the U.S. alliance structure in East Asia. China demands a free hand in East Asia, but the United States and its alliances — especially that with Japan — stand in the way.

In opposing TMD, China’s first concern relates to Taiwan, which it sees as a rebellious province that must be brought to heel, by force if necessary. A TMD system, China fears, would reintegrate Taiwan, de facto, into the U.S. alliance system. China also worries that TMD would integrate Japanese and U.S. military planning and strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. And it fears that TMD would undermine the value of its own small nuclear arsenal, tempting it to bust the bank if it tried to maintain its deterrent capability.

But China’s claims that TMD is a destabilizing factor are spurious. TMD is nonnuclear and defensive; it is China’s missile buildup that palpably threatens regional security. Across the strait from Taiwan, China is building a complex of intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles, as well as land-attack cruise missiles, which will be guided by new imaging and radar satellites. This complex is intended to give China the capacity to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses. Beijing hopes that the island will then be intimidated into submission — the classic Chinese strategy of winning without fighting. Seeking to deter the U.S. from intervening in a future Taiwan crisis, China is also buying from Russia destroyers equipped with surface-skimming missiles, whose purpose is to penetrate the defenses of a U.S. carrier task force.

While railing against TMD, China is increasing the number and accuracy of its missiles targeted at Japan and at forward-deployed U.S. forces here. It has also supplied North Korea with missile and missile equipment, which helped that country launch a three-stage Taepodong missile over Japan in August 1998. That had a galvanizing effect on Japan similar to the impact of Sputnik on the U.S. in 1957. In both cases, the improvement in launch capability that had been revealed signaled a heightened vulnerability to nuclear attack. Until then, China had succeeded in intimidating Japan into declining to participate in TMD. Currently, for the purpose of extorting money from the U.S. and others in order to preserve its regime, North Korea has suspended its missile-testing program. But the development and export of missiles continue.

Further afield, China has long supplied missiles and missile technology to Pakistan, and continues to do so. That was a major reason that India, feeling threatened by Pakistan and China, tested nuclear weapons in 1998. If China now arms against India, as seems likely, the nuclear- and missile-arms race in South Asia will spill over into East Asia — with what effect on Japan, now the only nonnuclear Asian great power?

China’s growing missile complex opposite Taiwan can also be used to intimidate the already-wobbly Southeast Asian nations. Unlike Japan and Australia, they do not enjoy the benefits of extended nuclear deterrence, and the Southeast Asian nuclear-weapons-free zone won’t help them much. Singapore has already signaled that it appreciates the nature of the Chinese missile threat, having just signed a billion-dollar contract with Israel to build imaging and radar satellites. But Singapore is the only Southeast Asian state with that kind of money to spend on defense.

In complaining about TMD at the Bangkok meeting, China will be encouraged by its previous successes in ARF in relation to the South China Sea. China’s vast territorial claims there reach almost as far south as the Malacca Straits. Yet ASEAN members, pursuing conflicting territorial claims of their own, have been unable to combine in defense of their interests. That has allowed China to divide and rule, while insisting that territorial issues be discussed only bilaterally. Meanwhile, China continues its steady forward movement in the South China Sea, which is a growing threat to Japan’s resource security.

China, not missing the chance to intimidate the host at the ARF meeting next week, will also complain about multilateral military exercises. That means the recently completed annual Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold exercise, in which Singapore joined for the first time. Cobra Gold is Thailand’s main hedge against China. But China enjoys great leverage over Thailand, because the Thais still look to Beijing to guarantee their strategic security against still-distrusted Vietnam. So the ever pragmatic Thais are willing to sing Beijing’s tune that the U.S. alliance system is a relic of the Cold War. That, in turn, gives China more leverage over the other Southeast Asians.

Japan and the U.S., when they promoted ARF in 1993, believed that membership in a regional security forum would encourage China to behave in more cooperative ways. That has proved a misplaced hope. Once inside ARF, China lost few opportunities to divide and rule. The forum has become just another tool by which China seeks to undermine support for the alliance that underpins Japan’s strategic security.

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