Missiles are everywhere. Increasingly accurate technology combined with a plummeting cost curve have made missiles the weapon of choice for defense ministries around the world. Historically, however, missiles have been an afterthought when governments weigh arms control options. That indifference must end: It is time for a real push to rein in the spread of such weapons, especially in Asia.

In a 2020 report, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee bluntly explained the logic behind missile proliferation: They’re viewed “as cost-effective weapons and symbols of national power.” The technology has become so cheap that it’s hard to find a defense establishment that doesn’t have its own inventory and the number of countries building indigenous production capabilities is expanding as well. Ominously, arsenals aren’t just growing but missiles themselves are becoming more capable — faster, more mobile, survivable, reliable, and accurate while traveling ever longer distances.

Considerable attention is paid to North Korea’s growing arsenal and its modernization efforts –Japan is threatened by a widening array of missiles and the U.S. homeland can now be hit, too — as well as that of China. The CSIS Missile Defense Project credits China with “the most active and diverse missile development program in the world.” Worryingly, its researchers conclude that Beijing’s missile modernization efforts “degrade the survivability of foundational elements of American power projection like the aircraft carrier and forward air bases.”

India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbors and adversaries, continue to update their missile inventories, and while Southeast Asian nations have abjured the nuclear capability of those two rivals, they are expanding their missile arsenals as well. The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have expressed interest in acquiring a supersonic cruise missile jointly developed by India and Russia. And Hanoi last year unveiled a locally produced cruise missile (made under license from Russia).

Australia announced last year that it planned to acquire long-range missiles, a decision that Japan continues to debate. South Korea has increased the range and payload size of its missile systems (with U.S. agreement), and Taiwan, after getting Trump administration approval to buy new U.S. missiles, endorsed the acquisition of strike capabilities in its newest Quadrennial Defense Review, released just last month. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper described the situation well in 2019 when he said that missile threats are “growing disproportionately to other capabilities” and “writ large, the rest of the world is not developing new fighter and bomber aircraft; they are developing missiles.” Nothing has changed since then.

Despite this proliferation — or perhaps because of it — missiles have not been a focus of arms control efforts. Negotiations have addressed payloads — not delivery systems -— most notably whether warheads carried nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

One of the few exceptions is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), established in the 1980s by Western governments to try to halt the proliferation of nuclear-capable delivery systems; it was supplemented by the 2002 Hague Code of Conduct, which provided a set of confidence-building measures. The proliferation of missiles is proof of the limits of the MTCR.

The only successful missile arms control effort was the 1987 U.S.–Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned cruise missiles, land-based ballistic missiles and missile launchers with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. That deal collapsed in 2019 under the weight of charges that Russia was cheating and that it did not include China, whose vast missile inventories — 95% of which were asserted to fall under the terms of the treaty had it been a signatory — undermined the Asian military balance.

Trump administration officials insisted that new INF nuclear discussions would have to include China, a position that Beijing flatly rejected. In that case, those same U.S. officials reasoned, the U.S. should deploy its missiles among allies in the region. Those allies have been reluctant to do so, although debates about strike options in Tokyo, Canberra and Taipei indicate that the problem is not a divergence in threat perceptions.

Defense officials argue that missiles are needed to deter. But missile proliferation is dangerous, especially as those weapons become more capable. Greater accuracy will reduce collateral damage, lowering restraints on use. Higher speeds and the prospect of “use it or lose it” dilemmas will put a premium on quick decision-making. Increasing mobility and a need for dispersion (because of the above factors) will require ever-more robust command and control capabilities. All make escalation more likely.

Proliferation and the resulting rising dangers should put missiles high on the agenda of regional security conferences. That hasn’t happened. Notably, however, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, with support from the German government, launched in 2019 the Missile Dialogue Initiative (MDI) to focus attention on this issue. It has held two international conferences and published a series of papers that address elements of the missile proliferation problem.

David Santoro, a colleague who directs the nuclear policy program at Pacific Forum, my old home, and I last month authored a paper for the MDI, which, after providing considerably more depth and detail than is here, calls for an Asian missile initiative in which regional governments would discuss this problem, share perspectives and try to reach consensus on a set of norms and principles about missile developments and deployments.

While an arms control agreement would be ideal, it is too much to expect now. Confidence building measures are possible, however, although it will take considerable time to reach what many might consider common sense measures. Any agreement will likely be facilitated by the fact that we are proposing regional discussions — rather than a global conversation — in which participants will have more similar assumptions and outlooks (although differences even among them can be profound).

Our proposal is easy to criticize. Defining a ballistic missile is increasingly difficult. Identifying who belongs at even this smaller table will be a challenge. Some countries straddle regions — China, Russia, the United States — and even a subregional dialogue, which Santoro endorses, will be problematic.

North Korea must be invited, even if its refusal to participate is virtually ordained. A smart leadership in Pyongyang would take the chance to engage, however, both for the status benefits (a seat at the table) and the chance to get its views heard.

Getting China to the table will be a big challenge. Beijing resists all arms control proposals, wary of any obligation to provide transparency about its military. A dialogue about missiles sidesteps China’s loudest objection to nuclear arms talks: the claim that its nuclear arsenal is a fraction the size of that of the U.S. and Russia and those two superpowers must first come down to China’s level before it will join any negotiations. Missiles are one area in which it enjoys an advantage over regional adversaries so by its own logic China should be willing to talk, if not make cuts, but it’s far more likely that Beijing will be loath to discuss them, much less put them on the table.

Obstinacy makes sense when facing a limited missile threat. In a world of growing missile arsenals, however, one in which a good number of those proliferators might be targeting China, Beijing’s calculus may change. It’s a long shot, but one well worth trying.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019). His paper, with David Santoro, “Time for a reckoning: Missiles have flown under the radar for too long in Asia,” can be found here.

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