Much of the world has been angered by North Korea’s Jan. 6 nuclear test and its Feb. 6 satellite launch/ballistic missile test. Incredibly, China seems most bothered not by Pyongyang’s disregard for Beijing’s interests, its dismissal of international law or its contempt for the United Nations, but by the actions of other regional governments to protect themselves against North Korean blackmail and threats. In Chinese eyes, it is missile defense that threatens to destabilize Northeast Asia, not a belligerent and unpredictable North Korean regime.

For several years, the United States has pressed its Asian allies to adopt missile defense systems to protect them and local U.S. assets against missile attacks. There are several reasons a host government could be troubled by such a request. They could object to the price of the program, especially at a time of tight budgets and fiscal restraint. As governments try to adapt to myriad new security challenges they must ask if this is the best use of limited defense funds. Answering that question with confidence is made more difficult by studies that have raised doubts about the protection such defenses really provide.

Strategists counter that a missile defense system does not have to be 100 percent effective to work. A missile defense system must only force an adversary to question the effectiveness of his weapons, which undermines the certainty that he will achieve his objectives. That is the essence of deterrence. For North Korea, a country with limited resources and considerable doubts about its technology, a little uncertainty goes a long way toward nullifying its arsenal.

Japan opted for a missile defense program years ago. Discussions began in 1995, when Japan began joint research on ballistic missile defense with the U.S. The administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided to proceed with a program of layered defense that employed forward-deployed Aegis-equipped destroyers and land-based PAC-3 missiles. An effective missile defense system requires sensors to detect launches, communications centers with powerful computing capabilities to process data, interceptors, and a network to link them. The effectiveness of the Japanese system depends on deep integration of U.S. and Japanese radars, sensors and interceptors.

China complains about the “destabilizing effect” of missile defenses. Traditionally this has meant that missile defense could provide a shield that would encourage one country to launch a first strike against an adversary and then use the defense system to defeat the remnants of the surviving missile force. That logic prompted the U.S. and the Soviet Union to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty during the Cold War.

China’s objections to missile defense in Asia include this long-standing concern — a real issue for a country that has pursued “minimum deterrence.” Repeated assurances that the U.S. has no intention of using its missile defense system against either Beijing (or Moscow) have not assuaged Chinese (or Russian) fears. Neither has China been comforted by U.S. claims that the technology as deployed cannot undermine the Chinese deterrent.

Unstated in the Chinese objection is the idea that China has a right to hold U.S. assets and those of its allies hostage. After all, stripped of its theoretical underpinnings, the Chinese position is that Beijing should be able to threaten regional governments with its missile forces and those governments are at fault for attempting to neutralize that threat. So while China expresses “regret” over North Korea’s satellite launch, it warns of “deep concern” over reports that South Korea is now discussing the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) with the U.S.

China is also displeased by the notion that Seoul has disregarded its objections. THAAD has been under consideration in South Korea for several years, but Seoul put off formal discussions with the U.S. in hopes that Beijing would appreciate its hesitation and press Pyongyang on South Korea’s behalf. This is also the motivation behind South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s policy toward China, and the decision to attend the parade in Beijing marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Beijing, however, has not delivered and Seoul has lost patience.

China’s final concern is the long-term implications of a South Korean decision to deploy THAAD. Moving forward promises deeper integration of U.S. and Korean militaries, and this deep integration is the real Chinese concern about missile defense. Beijing had hoped that it could use North Korea to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, but the deployment of missile defense will instead push them closer together — and is likely to result in increased trilateral, Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation as well. Tighter connections and more effective defense cooperation between the U.S. and its Asian allies deeply trouble China. If Beijing wants to promote peace and security in Asia, it should help counter the sources of instability, instead of denying governments the means to defend themselves.

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