China announced its first successful test of an antiballistic-missile system on Jan. 11. The Pentagon confirms detecting the test. American pundits note in passing that this represents an apparent shift in China’s long-maintained political stance on ballistic-missile defense (BMD), but they are more eager to focus on the connection between the Chinese test and our Patriot-system sale to Taiwan.
They should back up and look again at their first point. It’s China’s posture shift on the role of BMD systems in global security that will matter in the long run. China has indeed, as the New York Times analysis points out, been a perennial opponent of the BMD concept advanced in U.S. defense programming. Throughout its participation in the nuclear age, China has hewed to the same line as Russia: that global stability is preserved, in fact if not always in name, by mutual assured destruction. U.S. analysts have known for some years now that Beijing could turn its anti-satellite technology on the BMD problem, but China’s pattern, like Russia’s, has been to develop and test in secret while staking out a contradictory political posture.
The contradictory political posture has been abandoned, and that means more than that China is mad at us. It means that China perceives that the old conditions have expired. Under those old conditions, the chief dynamic involved Russia trying to forestall U.S. deployment of our “National Missile Defense” — the concept that would fully supersede MAD. But that condition no longer obtains, because with President Obama’s September 2009 policy reversal, Russia has succeeded.
The significance for China of our Patriot sale to Taiwan, assuming it is consummated, is that Beijing will have been unable to deter us given the same conditions in which Russia succeeded. That is inevitably a blot on China’s image as a great power. The BMD system launch of Jan. 11 was not announced solely for our benefit; it was a signal to the rest of the world too — starting with Russia, Japan, and India — that China has superpower options of its own and will use them. With Obama’s America retreating self-consciously to a “just one of the guys” security posture, the global interplay of power demonstrations, influence, and intimidation will increasingly be anyone’s game.
Not everything will be about us, in 2010 and beyond — but everything will affect us. Victor Davis Hanson has an apt metaphor for it this week, depicting the emerging international situation as a gunfight brewing at the OK Corral. He correctly predicts that the participants will achieve as much as they can with flashy holster work. But without the early, preemptive intervention of a sheriff, bullets eventually fly. China’s fundamental change of posture this week, regarding the basis of global security, is a signal: game on.