Reprinted with permission from The Washington Post, September 6, 2001


President Bush made it clear from the outset of his administration that he was not much interested in negotiations on arms control matters, preferring instead unilateral measures designed to induce cooperation in U.S. partners. In this way, the administration would make fast progress on arms control while avoiding, as Undersecretary of State John Bolton put it in recent Senate testimony, "small armies of negotiators inhabiting the best hotels in Geneva for months and years at a time."

The problem with this approach, of course, is that without the probes and feints of the negotiating process, one is in danger of giving too much to induce cooperation in the other parties. There could be no clearer example of this than the Bush team's signal to China over Labor Day that it might be willing to see a return to nuclear testing so that China could field new warheads -- and specifically multiple, independently targetable warheads (MIRVs).

On the one hand, MIRVs would enable China to be confident that the limited missile defense system of the United States would not negate its strategic offensive deterrent. On the other, MIRVs are universally regarded as a stepping stone for aspirants to strategic superiority. Encouraging a boost in Chinese warheads in this way is highly destabilizing and will do nothing for U.S. national security. And although the Bush administration seems to think it so, the Chinese were not inevitably headed in the MIRV direction.

The Chinese have clearly been interested in the technology for years -- what nuclear country is not? While I was on a trip to Beijing almost a decade ago, a Chinese missile specialist told me about the satellite-dispensing technology that China has under development. "Also excellent MIRV technology," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

Since that time, however, China has entered into a full moratorium on nuclear testing that would sharply constrain the development of the new warheads needed to deploy MIRVs. This step was taken at some political cost, since many Chinese military and nuclear experts were unready to halt testing. Now, at a single stroke, the Bush administration's signal will give courage to this lobby and undermine those figures in the leadership who have been holding the line against testing.

Moreover, the Chinese are considering quite a different response to the U.S. missile defense program. Last spring, once again in Beijing, I found myself drawn into discussion of this issue with a number of senior Chinese diplomats and military specialists. Those most in the know emphasized what they called the "Andropov solution" to their missile defense response problem.

Back in the 1980s, faced with the necessity of responding to the Reagan administration's "Star Wars" initiative with an economy that was already in crisis, the Communist Party general secretary, Yuri Andropov, decreed an approach that was an innovation in Soviet policy at the time: Instead of trying to match U.S. strategic defenses or engage in a strategic offensive buildup, as had been past practice, the Soviet Union would concentrate on developing countermeasures to the system -- chaff, balloons and other technologies that would defeat the system without destroying it. In that way, Andropov argued, he could maintain Soviet security on the cheap, without having to match or mirror U.S. programs.

The Chinese, by adopting the Andropov solution, would also clearly have economy in mind. They argued to me in April that they could develop countermeasures to the U.S. missile defense system at a cost of 2 percent of their defense budget. At the same time, they had heard that the U.S. system would cost 2 percent of the U.S. defense budget. Given the huge disparity between the two budgets, they asked, were they not getting the better end of the bargain?

More important, they said point blank that they did not feel they needed to engage in a buildup in strategic offensive forces to be confident their countermeasure approach would work. I was told by several persons that there would be no need for the Chinese to add new warheads and missiles as long as their countermeasures were effective.

With the Chinese displaying this attitude, it makes no sense for the Bush administration to encourage nuclear testing, given the enormous potential cost to U.S. national security of new, more accurate Chinese warheads. If we are going to go to bizarre lengths to convince the Chinese that our limited missile defense system is not designed against them, then we would be better off helping them directly with their countermeasure technologies. Or if that seems too ridiculous, perhaps we should encourage the Chinese and Russians to work together on countermeasures to the system. The Russians certainly have the requisite knowledge and experience, and they are old partners of the Chinese in the strategic technology arena. Why, we could even help pay for it.