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A considerable perception gap has surfaced between the United States and China over the U.S. development and deployment of missile defense systems over the last few decades. In recent years, this perception gap has become a central feature of the bilateral security relationship. It is poised to have an increasingly significant impact on strategic and political ties between the two major powers.

Washington feels that its official statements have made clear that its strategic missile defense systems aim only to counter threats from “rogue states”—Iran and North Korea in particular—and not to neutralize the strategic nuclear deterrents of China or Russia.1 Beijing, however, suspects that Washington harbors an unannounced long-term plan to eventually acquire the missile defense capability to intercept any nuclear missiles that China would be able to fire in retaliation after a hypothetical U.S. nuclear attack. Some Chinese analysts have advanced a series of claims that, by encircling China with a “chain of missile defense,”2 the United States seeks to establish “absolute security,”3 attain military hegemony,4 and/or undermine “China’s peaceful rise.”5

Chinese military and civilian experts and senior decisionmakers alike have concerns about U.S. missile defense systems that are deeply held, genuinely felt, and widely shared.6 In particular, President Xi Jinping, after taking office in 2012, has repeatedly criticized U.S. missile defenses. He has said, for example, that “the U.S. development of strategic missile defense and its deployment in various regions and in outer space” is creating a “severe negative impact to the global and regional strategic balance, security, and stability.”7

A considerable perception gap has surfaced between the United States and China over the U.S. development and deployment of missile defense systems.

China’s concerns gravitate particularly to U.S. strategic missile defenses. It is worth noting that strategic (also called homeland or national) missile defense systems are designed to protect a country’s homeland from long-range missile strikes, whereas theater (also known as regional or tactical) missile defense systems are meant to protect regional targets from theater-range missile attacks. From China’s perspective, the most direct threat comes from U.S. strategic missile defense systems, particularly the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that, Beijing worries, could intercept Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) using U.S. interceptors based in Alaska and California. This is troubling to Chinese policymakers because their ICBMs would constitute the most important means of initiating nuclear retaliation against the U.S. homeland in the event of a U.S. nuclear first strike.

Beijing also worries that U.S. regional missile defense systems deployed close to China threaten the country’s key security interests.8 Xi himself has argued that U.S. regional missile defense systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, “severely harm . . . Chinese national strategic security interests.”9 In recent decades, the United States has sent various advanced interceptors and radars to Guam and other locations in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, either as independent U.S. deployments or as military exports to allies and partners. Examples include Standard Missile interceptors on ships as well as the interceptors and the X-band AN/TPY-2 radars of the THAAD system. From the perspective of Chinese officials and experts, these deployments appear to be a coordinated U.S. effort to install missile defense capabilities on China’s doorstep, with the goal of undermining Chinese regional missiles and potentially even Beijing’s strategic deterrent.

Technological advances that could render U.S. capabilities even more lethal only deepen China’s misgivings. The United States now has plans to introduce more capable systems, such as the new Long Range Discrimination Radar and the Pacific Discriminating Radar, and to export Aegis Ashore systems to the region. The U.S. government is engaged in exploring cutting-edge technologies such as airborne and space-based boost-phase interceptors as well as directed energy weapons. These endeavors help justify the worst Chinese concerns that the United States is indeed seeking to develop, step by step, an overwhelming strategic capability and that China is only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Where Ambiguity Comes From

The resulting perception gap between China and the United States stems from multiple factors. One key set of contributors, which are understudied in the existing literature, are the ambiguities regarding the capabilities and policies of both countries. These ambiguities arise from a lack of clarity in the two states’ expressed threat perceptions, policy objectives, and actual capabilities, all of which cause them to misinterpret each other’s intentions. Such ambiguities and perceptual differences are having an increasingly salient impact on the bilateral strategic relationship and regional stability.

These ambiguities arise from a lack of clarity in the two states’ expressed threat perceptions, policy objectives, and actual capabilities, all of which cause them to misinterpret each other’s intentions.

Drawing on both policy and technical literature and both English and Chinese sources, this report identifies and analyzes three main sources of ambiguity that contribute to this problem. First, expressed Chinese views send a confusing message about why, and to what extent, U.S. missile defenses threaten Chinese interests. Second, U.S. missile defense capabilities and policies are ambiguous in terms of the extent to which they are intended to and are capable of threatening China. And, third, the Chinese response to U.S. missile defense programs is ambiguous with regard to how much it is focused solely on countering U.S. missile defense systems as opposed to serving other Chinese military and political goals.10

First, despite the apparent consensus in China that U.S. missile defense seriously imperils China’s strategic security interests, there is a lack of clarity about precisely why and how that is the case. Chinese officials generally do not explain in detail how China assesses the relative threat that U.S. missile defense systems pose to China’s strategic nuclear deterrent compared to its regional nuclear deterrent, or whether Beijing worries more about the weakening of its conventional missile strike capability or its nuclear deterrent. The accounts of Chinese analysts can often appear to be inconsistent if not inherently contradictory, and some are technically unsound. For U.S. policymakers, the resulting ambiguity casts uncertainties over which thinking represents China’s official position and which concerns drive Chinese decisionmaking. This ambiguity has not been thoroughly analyzed and, in fact, Chinese experts themselves do not appear to have fully recognized it. But it creates one important layer of misunderstanding between China and the United States.

Second, U.S. missile defense policies also exhibit considerable ambiguities. For instance, the United States has declared that its strategic missile defenses are not designed to undermine China’s nuclear deterrent. But Washington has not explained how China should distinguish U.S. regional missile defense capabilities from strategic missile defense capabilities or differentiate U.S. strategic missile defenses directed against North Korea from those capable of countering Chinese strategic missiles. Such ambiguities are an important source of Chinese suspicion, but they have yet to be discussed at length in bilateral dialogues.

Finally, because of the depth of concern in China about U.S. missile defense programs, domestic Chinese advocates who are pushing the government to invest in across-the-board countervailing missile defense capabilities have an easy sell. These capabilities include new penetrating missile technologies; sophisticated midcourse countermeasures; precision-strike capabilities for conducting preemptive strikes against key missile defense components; and electronic warfare, cyber, and counterspace technologies that could target missile defense systems’ command, control, and communications networks.

Yet, from the U.S. perspective, such massive Chinese investments create ambiguities about Beijing’s own true intentions. Questions arise about whether China’s nuclear modernization program is driven by new external threats, such as those posed by U.S. missile defenses, or by a more aggressive Chinese nuclear strategy or greater geopolitical ambitions. Such Chinese investments also raise doubts in the United States about whether countervailing missile defense capabilities other than nuclear modernization efforts are really a response to U.S. missile defense programs or whether they are instead a disguised Chinese effort to comprehensively advance China’s offensive capabilities. The resulting uncertainty widens the perception gap between the two countries’ security establishments.

A Foray Into Confidence Building on Missile Defense

This perception gap cannot be allowed to fester untended. To leave these ambiguities unaddressed would put the bilateral relationship and regional stability at greater risk. The United States and its East Asian allies (especially Japan and South Korea) are highly likely to continue building up their missile defense capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region, not least because the nuclear threat posed by North Korea will not disappear anytime soon. If the U.S. and Chinese governments fail to convene an effective dialogue on missile defense, serious disputes will become more frequent and consequential. A recent notable example is the U.S. deployment of a THAAD system in South Korea (or the Republic of Korea [ROK]) in 2016, which caused serious disruptions to both China–South Korea ties and U.S.-China relations.

This perception gap cannot be allowed to fester untended.

But intentions are in the eye of the beholder. Both the United States and China genuinely see themselves as pursuing purely defensive objectives in this decades-long dispute over missile defense. The resulting security dilemma, in which each side interprets the other’s defensive actions as offensive, can only be mitigated if the two countries acknowledge the perception gap between them and begin addressing it. Closely studying these ambiguities and their consequences could be the first step toward making superficial U.S.-China missile defense discussions a more substantive and effective form of dialogue.

It bears mentioning that missile defense systems are not the only source of ambiguities in the U.S.-China nuclear relationship. The increasing entanglement of nuclear and non-nuclear technologies and systems is another related matter, among others.11 U.S. early-warning satellites, for example, are designed to detect an incoming nuclear strike and can also better equip regional missile defenses to intercept Chinese non-nuclear missiles. If China were to attack such satellites to defeat U.S. regional missile defense systems, the United States might misinterpret such a strike as preparations for a Chinese nuclear strike, creating a risk of inadvertent escalation.

As the overall U.S.-China relationship reaches a watershed juncture, some success in clarifying such ambiguities on missile defense would help prevent this perception gap from causing both sides to view the broader bilateral relationship even more in terms of security competition. Joint efforts to handle their differences would give government officials and experts on both sides evidence that long-standing distrust can be managed and that a new Cold War is not inevitable. Such cooperation might even serve as a useful template for mitigating other bilateral security problems too.


1 U.S. Department of Defense, Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2010); and U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary, Missile Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2019).

2 Zhang Yanliang (张炎良) and Yang Xu (杨旭), “罗援:美在韩部署萨德意在封堵中国核战略能力” [Luo Yuan: United States aims to encircle China’s nuclear strategic capabilities by deploying THAAD in the ROK], (人民网), August 1, 2016; and Zhao Xiaozhuo (赵小卓), “‘萨德’部署韩国将迫使中俄扩大在反导领域合作” [‘THAAD’ deployment in ROK will force China and Russia into greater anti-missile cooperation], PLA Daily (解放军报), August 1, 2016.

3 Li Xianrong (李显荣) and Yang Min (杨敏), “铸造国家安全战略支柱的海外样本” [Overseas examples of building the strategic pillar of national security], PLA Daily (解放军报), January 30, 2018, 7; and Zhang and Yang, [Luo Yuan: United States aims to encircle China’s nuclear strategic capabilities by deploying THAAD in the ROK].

4 Si Wanbing (司万兵) et al., “美国导弹防御系统的发展现状和影响” [The developing situation and influence of the U.S. missile defense system], Ordnance Industry Automation (兵工自动化) 30, no. 1 (2011): 1–3, 11; Wu Jingjing (吴晶晶), “韩国部署‘萨德’的政策演变” [The policy evolution of the deployment of “THAAD in the ROK], Journal of International Studies (国际问题研究) no. 6 (2017): 83–95; and Zhang and Yang, [Luo Yuan: United States aims to encircle China’s nuclear strategic capabilities by deploying THAAD in the ROK].

5 Chen Yue (陈岳), “‘萨德’入韩破坏地区战略平衡” [THAAD deployment in South Korea undermines regional strategic balance], PLA Daily (解放军报), August 5, 2016.

6 Brad Roberts, “China and Ballistic Missile Defense: 1955 to 2002 and Beyond,” Defense Technical Information Center, 2003, 23–47.

7 “中俄两国元首共同签署联合声明” [Chinese and Russian presidents co-sign joint statement], People’s Daily (人民日报), March 23, 2013; “中华人民共和国主席和俄罗斯联邦总统关于加强全球战略稳定的联合声明” [Joint statement on strengthening global strategic stability by the president of the People’s Republic of China and the president of the Russian Federation], Xinhua News Agency (新华社), June 26, 2016; and “中华人民共和国和俄罗斯联邦关于加强当代全球战略稳定的联合声明” [Joint statement on strengthening today’s global strategic stability by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation], Xinhua News Agency (新华社), June 6, 2019.

8 Roberts, “China and Ballistic Missile Defense: 1955 to 2002 and Beyond,” 23–34.

9 “习近平接受俄罗斯媒体采访” [Xi Jinping interviewed by Russian media], China Daily (中国日报),

10 Moreover, China is also developing and deploying its own missile defense capabilities, which may be sufficiently advanced in the future to impact the strategic relationship between the two countries, though they only have a modest impact now. For that reason, issues related to China’s own missile defense programs are not discussed further in this report, although they may become a topic of greater concern for the United States in the future.

11 For more systematic analyses of nuclear-conventional entanglement, see James M. Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security 43, no. 1 (2018): 56–­99; and James M. Acton, et al., Entanglement: Chinese and Russian Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2017).