A decade after the end of the Cold War, the world faces the risk of new strategic instability. Policymakers in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow are moving toward decisions that may unintentionally increase nuclear dangers. The heart of the problem lies in insufficient attention to the intersection of three policy currents: American missile defenses, U.S.-Russian nuclear diplomacy, and Chinese nuclear modernization. Unless all three are given full consideration, American decisions in coming months could lead China to initiate a major buildup of its nuclear forces, increase Sino-Russian strategic cooperation, and jeopardize both efforts at arms reduction and the effectiveness of any American missile defenses that are eventually deployed.
A lingering bipolar mindset has left China the forgotten nuclear power. It is time that Washington turned its eyes to the East and came to grips with the fact that over the next decade it will likely be China, not Russia or any rogue, whose nuclear weapons policy will concern America most. The People's Republic has been modernizing its modest nuclear arsenal for 20 years and will continue to do so regardless of the actions of other nations. But external developments will influence the final contours of China's nuclear modernization program. In fact, Western actions have already had some effect, and not for the better. The Gulf War and the air war over Kosovo, for example, reinforced Chinese worries that precision-guided conventional weapons could destroy China's existing nuclear second-strike capability.
Such concerns about the erosion of China's nuclear deterrent have been largely dismissed by Americans, whose debates about national missile defense (NMD) have centered instead on the emerging dangers of small-scale missile launches from countries such as North Korea or Iran. Apart from questions of technological feasibility, the greatest obstacle to the deployment of such defenses has been thought to be the negative effects they might have on U.S.-Russian arms control agreements. Yet Washington seems determined to proceed with NMD whether or not it can find some way to
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