Asian Reactions to U.S. Missile Defense
NBR Analysis vol. 11, no. 3

Asian Reactions to U.S. Missile Defense

by Toby Dalton and Michael J. Green
November 1, 2000

Current U.S. theater missile defense plans are unlikely to diminish strategic stability in East Asia, although TMD cooperation with Taiwan would certainly undermine U.S. relations with Beijing. U.S.-deployed national missile defense might provoke responses that affect regional strategic stability and must be weighed against the costs of providing effective defense against emerging missile threats.

The United States is likely to decide in the near future to deploy theater missile defense (TMD), and possibly national missile defense (NMD). [1] These decisions could have a profound effect on the security dynamics of East Asia. Already China, North Korea, and Russia are warning of negative consequences, while U.S. allies are assessing the costs and benefits of participating in TMD or supporting the United States should Washington proceed with NMD. The challenge for U.S. policymakers and military officials, and the primary purpose of this essay, is to identify the potential consequences, both direct and collateral, of deployment for these nations, to anticipate their likely reactions, and to determine an approach to missile defense that will reinforce regional stability. It is difficult to forecast precisely how some nations will respond and therefore it is necessary to consider: 1) a broad range of contributing political and economic factors beyond the effect of the weapons systems themselves; 2) the full range of possible responses; and 3) which responses are most likely, given the costs and benefits to each particular nation.

The next section of this essay discusses the background to the missile defense debate and the current status of several U.S. missile defense systems. The following three sections assess the impact of TMD and NMD on several important nations in the Asia–Pacific region. The analysis for each nation begins with a discussion of the current strategic and political context. [2] Next, potential responses to specific U.S. systems are identified, with forecasting about the likelihood of each. Finally, other variables that could affect reactions are discussed. Tables summarizing current policy, security impact, and likely and extreme responses are also included for each nation and are useful as a quick reference source. The three sections are divided into responses by U.S. allies (Japan, the Republic of Korea [ROK], Taiwan, and Australia), responses by opponents (the People’s Republic of China [PRC], the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK], and Russia), and responses by others collaterally affected (India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]). The essay closes with a section of policy recommendations.


Military history is littered with defense dilemmas, usually sparked by advances in weaponry and strategy. A defense dilemma typically occurs when a group or nation acquires a military capability that threatens the security order in its region. To avoid coercion or even military defeat its neighbors must respond by redressing the…

[1] A theater missile defense (TMD) system covers a limited geographical area (a theater), while the U.S. national missile defense (NMD) system will cover the entire nation. The capability of a missile defense system is characterized by: 1) the speed of the interceptor; 2) the level of threat it can defend against; 3) the point at which it attacks an incoming missile; and 4) the geographic area it can cover. Less capable TMD systems like Patriot use slow interceptors against short-range missiles and cover limited areas such as cities or bases. More capable TMD systems will employ faster interceptors, attack incoming medium- (MRBMs) or intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) at the edge or just outside the earth’s atmosphere, and can cover extended areas (in some cases, such as Japan, the entire territory of a nation). The U.S. NMD system will use very fast interceptors to attack incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) outside the earth’s atmosphere and will protect all fifty states.

[2] For a chronology on TMD in Asia, see “Theater Missile Defense (TMD) in Northeast Asia: An Annotated Chronology, 1990-Present,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies, available at .