China's announced 18 percent increase in military spending, US consideration of Aegis ship sales to Taiwan and the push for a national missile defense system give new importance to a prescient analysis by Ambassador Chas Freeman at Carnegie in 1999. We present his prescription from that meeting for avoiding heightened tensions with China. Freeman discusses his debate with Chinese officials that gives us both the origin and the true meaning of the famous "Los Angeles" quote.
Ambassador Chas Freeman, presentation to the Carnegie Endowment April 30, 1999
Earlier this year, President Clinton said that the United States should develop and ultimately deploy a national missile defense system. In making that statement it appears that there was not much consideration given to the effect on the Russian nuclear arsenal and the probable reactions of the Russians. It is clear that there was no attention giving to Chinese reaction. I am afraid this may turn out to be a mistake.
If it is true that China's nuclear deterrent consists of some 20 or so ancient, creaking DF-5's, the national missile defense system that the President plans to deploy will invalidate it. The system is conceived as containing some 200 launchers and the capability of intercepting up to 9 missiles at once. If you were a Chinese rocket scientist you would be thinking very seriously about how to preserve China's nuclear deterrent. There are discussions going on now in Beijing about reactions to NMD. I do not know what answers will come out of those discussions, but I would make two points. First, the obvious answers to national missile defense-if, like China you want a small nuclear force with the greatest possible political impact-is to greatly increase the size of the missile force. One can imagine if such a decision is actually taken, the stimulus for this in NMD will be forgotten, and we will be involved in another arms race, this time having created a Chinese nuclear arsenal that perhaps could be a serious threat to the United States.
Second, China must assume the President meant what he said. A prudent military planner will have to assume that this is a real possibility, because the lead-time to develop a force to counter NMD is such that programs need to begin now if they are to yield an effective result down the road. Whether or not NMD remains in the realm of science fiction, it will potentially create a real nuclear force in China.
Some configurations of TMD begin to shade into a national missile defense capability. There is a blur between the two systems, which from the Chinese prospective threatens to also degrade, if not invalidate, China's nuclear deterrent force. Beyond that, TMD is an issue primary in connection with possible American transfer of the system to allies in East Asia and to Taiwan. On the mainland, there is great concern about the destabilizing effects of TMD in terms of Taiwan's politicians taking additional risks and great concern about the implications of a quasi-reconstitution of the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, the termination of which was a condition of the normalization of US-China relations in 1979.
The Origins of the Famous "Los Angeles" Quote
This statement came out in garbled form in The New York Times. It was made toward the end of a five-hour argument in October 1995, over what the probable effect would be of the military maneuvers the Central Military Commission had authorized in the Taiwan Strait. It was my position, which turned out to be correct, that if China carried through with its plans, it would get a good American military reaction. It was the position of the Chinese military officers, with whom I was speaking, that there would be no American military reaction.
At the end of the very heated argument, one of them said, "And finally, you do not have the strategic leverage that you had in the 1950's when you threatened nuclear strikes on us. You were able to do that because we could not hit back. But if you hit us now, we can hit back. So you will not make those threats. In the end you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei." Please note the statement is in a deterrent context and it is consistent with no first use. It is not a threat to bomb Los Angeles.
My final comment is, as the CIA damage assessment or intelligence community damage assessment stated, "to date the aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear deployment." Modernization of the nuclear forces has been a low priority for China and the US should not do anything to make it a higher priority.