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Missile Defense, Asian-Style

Yesterday, a Japanese destroyer, equipped with the Aegis battle-management system, shot down a dummy missile over the Pacific. This is the first time that an American ally has done so, according to Japanese and U.S. officials.

The medium-range missile destroyed in the test resembles ones in the North Korean arsenal. That was no coincidence: Pyongyang’s August 1998 launch of its Taepodong missile, which arced over Japan, spurred Tokyo to cooperate with the United States in building a defensive system. “This was a monumental event in the Japan-U.S. security relationship,” a Japanese Defense Ministry official said at a news conference in Hawaii, where the target was launched.

Yes, it is monumental. A layered defense will protect the United States from North Korea. Despite a failed launch last July—a Taepodong exploded about 40 seconds into its flight—this type of missile can hit Alaska and Hawaii today. With expected improvements, within five to seven years the Taepodong will be able to reach any portion of the United States. Japanese help on missile defense may enable the Pentagon to defeat an attack from North Korea, which is unlikely to develop an arsenal much larger than the one it has now.

Russia, which possesses almost 800 missiles, can defeat any defense Japan and the United States can mount. Yet that has not stopped the Kremlin from complaining. “We are opposed to the construction of a missile defense system aimed at securing military superiority,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the eve of his trip to Japan. China, with many fewer ballistic missiles, has long voiced its opposition to joint U.S.-Japan cooperation.

The Chinese have two concerns. First, the People’s Liberation Army actually thinks about launching missiles against the American homeland. Its last public threat to incinerate the United States was made as late as July 2005. Second, Beijing worries that Washington may adapt defenses developed in Japan to protect Taiwan. This June the Taiwanese expressed their desire to join the American-Japanese system.

At present, the United States is merely upgrading Taiwan’s Patriot missiles. Yet yesterday’s successful test should persuade Washington to ask the Taiwanese to participate in the joint American-Japanese efforts. Taipei acknowledges that such an extension of missile defense would be “politically sensitive.” Yet why should we be concerned about offending autocrats who think nothing of threatening to destroy American cities?



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