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Opinion

China will use economic pain to hinder US's Pacific missile deployment

Beijing's leverage looms over American allies like Philippines and South Korea

The U.S. military conducted on Aug. 18 a flight test of a type of missile banned for more than 30 years by a treaty that both the United States and Russia abandoned in that month.   © U.S. Defense Department/AP

"The military balance in the Pacific is going in the wrong direction," said former U.S. defense department strategist Elbridge Colby recently. Following the dissolution of a landmark arms control treaty in early August, the U.S. is now eyeing where it might field missiles as a counterweight to China's sizable arsenal.

But U.S. deployment efforts face stiff headwinds among skittish Asia-Pacific allies, who understand that hosting missiles draws Beijing's ire and likely economic retaliation.

Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned both conventional and nuclear ground-launched missiles with ranges of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. On August 3, the day after the treaty's demise, U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper remarked that he hoped to oversee the deployment of intermediate-range systems to Asia "sooner rather than later."

Re-engineering existing air- or sea-launched missiles is relatively trivial. Two weeks after Esper's comments, an official U.S. Department of Defense video showcased the dramatic, slow-motion exit of a Tomahawk cruise missile variant from a mobile Mark 41 launcher on California's San Nicolas Island -- a conspicuous demonstration of the system's technical maturity and of the Pentagon's intentions.

But deploying missiles only to established bases proves problematic. "Every inch" of Guam, a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, is most likely targeted, according to one arms control expert; China's DF-26 ballistic missile is colloquially called the "Guam killer" and was showcased in the 70th anniversary parade in Beijing on Tuesday.

China's DF-26 ballistic missile is colloquially called the "Guam killer."   © Imaginechina/AP

Last summer, 70,000 protesters dissatisfied with the proposed relocation of a U.S. air base from one portion of the Japanese island of Okinawa to another gathered in Naha to demand the base's complete removal. On an island expecting the eventual drawdown of U.S. Marines, the arrival of new missiles means more American troops, not fewer -- and would be answered with howls of disapproval.

For years, Pentagon planners have contemplated fortifying the "first island chain," a line running from the Kuril Islands off Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, past Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, and curving round Malaysia to Vietnam.

One professor at the U.S. Marine Corps War College wrote that such a concept could be employed during conflict "to cut China off from its overseas markets and, more crucially, the energy resources it needs to sustain its economy and maintain societal peace."

Though now unfettered from the INF Treaty, finding consenting allies to host these missiles is an imposing challenge for the U.S., given China's economic leverage.

In April, Beijing lifted punishing sanctions it had imposed two years ago on South Korean retail conglomerate Lotte Group, after Lotte reluctantly provided land for Seoul's deployment of a missile defense battery.

In retribution, Lotte Mart stores in China were shut over alleged fire safety issues, construction was indefinitely suspended at Lotte projects in Shenyang and Chengdu, and Beijing forbid Chinese tourists from traveling to South Korea.

Seoul's economic wounds seem to have sufficiently discouraged any consideration of intermediate-range U.S. missiles. "We have not internally reviewed the issue and have no plan to do so," said the South Korean Defense Ministry publicly on August 5.

That same day, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters that hosting U.S. missiles had "not been asked of us," and wasn't being considered. One American columnist cited the "100 billion reasons" why Australia would refuse -- the annual dollar value of its trade relationship with China.

In late August, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made his fifth official visit to China, and while he pledged to confront Beijing on its aggression in the South China Sea, his spokesperson mentioned talks could also touch upon the cooperative, including joint oil and gas exploration on Reed Bank.

Duterte has sought to open distance with the U.S., a Philippine treaty ally since 1951. In a speech to business leaders in the Great Hall of the People during his first state visit to China in 2016, Duterte declared that "America has lost" and announced his "separation" from the U.S.

The Philippines has over 7,000 islands, but none is likely to be offered as a base for U.S. missiles.

Of all regional allies, Japan would appear the most receptive. At a meeting of the National Security Secretariat in March, one participant reportedly urged Tokyo to actively consider "allowing for the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Japan."

That month, new Japan Ground Self-Defense Force bases opened on Amami Oshima and Miyako, in the southern Ryukyu Islands, while construction of another base was well underway on Ishigaki.

Japan's willingness is far from assured, however. Franklin Miller, a seasoned adviser who formerly served on the U.S. National Security Council, fears that controversial missile deployments would propagate destabilizing fractures throughout Japanese society, between pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. camps.

And China's commercial clout is well understood: one Japanese defense ministry official explained that if approached by the U.S., "We would face a very difficult choice."

In an economically-intertwined region, with mounting U.S.-China tensions, such choices will only become more difficult.

Evan Karlik is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. He served last year as a Defense Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives. The views expressed herein are solely his own and are in no way intended to reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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