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How Does Missile Defense Against North Korea Affect US-China Relations?

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North Korea has one of the world’s largest conventional military forces and, according to analysts’ estimates, could have more than sixty nuclear weapons in its stockpile. The US and its Asian allies long have been concerned with North Korea’s military capabilities and the numerous missile and nuclear tests the country has conducted over the years. But what happens when US missile defenses aimed at deterring and defending against North Korea also intensify the security dilemma between the United States and China?

SIS professor Ji-Young Lee and SIS PhD candidate Eleni Ekmektsioglou explore this relationship between US missile defense and US-China relations in a recent article in The Pacific Review. We caught up with them to ask a few questions about their research.

You can also read Ekmektsioglou and Lee’s full original article, “North Korea, missile defense, and US-China security dilemma,” with access provided by the American University Library.


For readers who are not familiar, can you briefly define the terms “US missile defense” and the “US-China security dilemma” that you use throughout this research?

The term "missile defense" refers to an integrated system of RADARs and ballistic missiles that seek to intercept incoming warheads through the use of kinetic energy. To use simple language, missile defenses seek to hit a bullet with a bullet. Missile defenses were considered to be a game changer during the Cold War because, in theory, they could help states reduce vulnerability from others’ nuclear attacks while conferring nuclear superiority to those states that possess them. Missile defenses, however, proved to be technologically very challenging and, at the same time, controversial with regard to their likely impact on the prospect of international conflict or peace.

The concept of a “security dilemma” refers to a situation where in international politics, a state’s effort to enhance its security unintentionally reduces the net security for all. Consider, for example: state A’s pursuit of security by investing in better missiles or aircraft might cause state B to feel less secure inadvertently. State B is expected to pursue measures to increase its own security, causing state A to feel less secure this time. This type of action-reaction dynamic will lead to negative spirals that can eventually drag both states into conflict. In the anarchic international system, war does not come as a result of a purposeful and rational calculation of costs and benefits but rather as a tragic consequence of insecurity inadvertently caused by each state's behavior in pursuit of security.

Q: How has the US missile defense aimed at North Korea exacerbated the security dilemma between the US and China?

After the end of the Cold War, the rising consensus within the United States in support of missile defense systems had primarily to do with a growing sense of vulnerability from countries like North Korea and Iran. But Beijing considered the US’s missile defense policies against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as carrying information about the US’s intention towards China’s own nuclear deterrence capability. China has been developing countermeasures to enhance the survivability and penetrability of its second-strike capability, which are aimed at restoring the status quo ante vis-à-vis the United States.

What is “diffuse signaling,” and how is it linked to US missile defense and the US-China security dilemma?

Consider a situation where an action by one state, designed to change the behavior of a second state, is interpreted by a third state as carrying information relevant to itself. By diffuse signaling, we refer to situations where one’s signaling leads to a multiplicity of interpretations. In terms of the US-China relations, Beijing viewed the US’s missile defense policies against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as relevant for the US’s intention toward China’s nuclear deterrence capability.

Q: How have the three factors you identify in your article—the US alliance systems in Asia, geography, and nuclear asymmetry between the US and China—made diffuse signaling more salient in this case?

The geostrategic proximity of China to North Korea tends to accentuate China’s sense of insecurity vis-à-vis the US’s actions toward North Korea, making it very challenging for Washington to reassure Beijing. The structure of the US-led alliance system in Asia is the backdrop against which China’s fear of encirclement by the US and its allies can be highlighted. For example, from the US and its allies, their actions might be designed to keep up with the status quo against North Korea’s growing capabilities, but they can be interpreted by China as undermining their own security. Lastly, there is a huge gap and asymmetry in nuclear capabilities between the US and China, which means that China becomes very sensitive to its nuclear deterrent capability vis-à-vis the US.

Q: How has US conventional military power played a key role in shaping China’s military modernization agenda, and how have Chinese decisions on military modernization shaped the US’s technological advancement in missile defense?

This question lies beyond the scope of the paper, but we’ll try to answer it. China has closely studied all US military campaigns as the People’s Liberation Army is deeply interested in mastering new technologies, especially what the People’s Liberation Army calls “informatized warfare.” Chinese modernization has caused a lot of concern within the United States, especially China’s quick expansion of its Rocket Force and ballistic missiles along its coast.

As we show in our paper, the United States’ regional missile defenses were partially developed while keeping China’s investments in its conventional ballistic missile force in mind. However, there is an important distinction that should be made between regional missile defenses aimed at deterring China’s conventional missiles and homeland missile defenses. Unlike the regional missile defenses, the latter is about protecting the United States from incoming ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads. The US has officially stated that its decisions on homeland missile defenses are driven by North Korea and that they are not linked to the Chinese arsenal.

Q: What do you think this research means for the future of US relations with North Korea, South Korea, and China? What policy recommendations do you have for the new Biden administration on this issue?

Our recommendation for the Biden administration is that the United States should more carefully consider the wider regional implications of its policy vis-à-vis North Korea, particularly China’s tendency to view regional and homeland missile defenses as mutually reinforcing. To stop the further deterioration of relations from the entanglement of the nuclear and non-nuclear elements in the wider US missile defense architecture, they should have a candid dialogue on cutting-edge technologies such as hypersonic weapons, cyber, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence (AI), and quantum computing.