Missile strategy missing the mark

The failed test earlier this month of the United States’ national missile defense system was more than a black mark for the technology. It also shot a hole in Uncle Sam’s position in weapons negotiations with China.

Defense Secretary William Cohen arrived in Beijing this week to urge China’s leaders to curtail exports of missile technologies.

He also vowed the Clinton administration will keep developing a nationwide defense against long-range missiles.

The latter is well and good. But it’s doubtful that China, aware that the U.S. considers the spread of missile technologies to be a long-term threat, should feel compelled to alter its policies based on an American missile system that doesn’t work.

Make no mistake, China’s dislike of a U.S. national missile defense runs deep. Despite the system’s recent trouble, the Chinese government sees it as undermining the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and China’s own nuclear arsenal. So when Cohen says, as he did this week, that the U.S. will continue researching and developing theater and national missile defense systems, his counterparts in Beijing listen.

Theater missile defense refers to weaponry such as the Patriot anti-missiles for shooting down shorter-range missiles like those aimed by China at Taiwan. A national missile defense would target long-range missiles capable of reaching U.S. soil.

The infamous Cold War may be over, but cool breezes still blow between the United States and China. Besides missile defense, the superpowers are at odds over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China’s buildup of offensive ballistic missiles on its coastline facing Taiwan, and Chinese exports of missile technology to Pakistan.

Strategically important Hawaii and the other 49 states would be protected by the national missile system. The system flopped in an important test, however. The booster rocket carrying a missile interceptor into space in search of a mock warhead didn’t release the interceptor, keeping it from trying to hit its target over the Pacific Ocean. The booster rocket also tumbled unexpectedly during the flight and experienced other mechanical problems.

Cohen has not ruled out telling telling the president that preliminary construction work on the national missile system should proceed even while awaiting more test results. Future results should be better, however, if the U.S. hopes to use the system as an effective chip in negotiating the world’s security with China.

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