The Great Asian Missile Race

Northeast Asia needs to hold off on the military parades, put down the DF-21s and KN-08s, and talk it out before an arms race spirals out of control.


In the past few months, China and North Korea have shown off new nuclear-armed missiles during massive military parades. If this all seems very USSR circa 1965, well, it is. China and North Korea are one-party states. Not just in the Leninist sense, either. They know how to throw only one kind of party: a giant military parade.

In September, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with a giant military parade along Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue. The procession included a massive amount of military equipment, including new or seldom-seen missiles like the DF-15, DF-16, DF-21D, DH-10, and DF-5B. You don’t have to remember the names — the Chinese helpfully painted them in English to make sure we all got the point. (And, it isn’t like there’s going to be a quiz at the end of this column.) A few weeks ago, North Korea had its own 70th-anniversary parade to celebrate the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea, with Scuds, Nodongs, Musudans and — the pièce de résistance — a redesigned KN-08 ICBM. (Seriously, I swear: No quiz!)

The missiles on parade are also very Soviet in a second, more alarming sense. China and North Korea continue to think that an important way to demonstrate vitality and legitimacy of their current ruling figures is by standing up to the West. And, as Marshal Chen Yi famously said, having nuclear weapons has helped them straighten their backs.

Asia is in the midst of a massive missile race — even if no one seems to have noticed. The two parades, however, offer a moment to take stock of where we are — and just how dangerous this race has become.

China has the world’s most active program to develop ballistic and cruise missiles. In recent years, China has developed a whole generation of solid-fueled ballistic missiles: running from short-range missiles like the DF-15 and DF-16, to medium range-missiles like the DF-21 and DF-26, to intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs), like the DF-31, DF-31A, and apparently the DF-41.

China is also refurbishing older liquid-fueled missiles like the DF-5, the B version of which has multiple nuclear warheads. While China has nuclear weapons, most of these new missiles are conventional. China’s strategic rocket force, the Second Artillery, has evolved from a force exclusively armed with nuclear weapons to one today in which the majority of missile units are conventionally armed. That is a huge organizational change, and one that is seldom remarked upon. China has also developed a more aggressive doctrine for using its conventional missiles than the restrictive no-first-use policy in place for nuclear-armed ones. Finally, China has also made an interesting decision, choosing to equip some missiles, like the DF-21 and DF-26, with the option to carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

China might have the world’s most active missile program, but Kim Jong Un loves missiles more than anything, maybe even more than he loves Dennis Rodman. And 2014 was a banner year for North Korean missile testing. Pyongyang tested new rocket artillery, a 125-mile range version of the KN-02, and a surprising number of Scuds and Nodongs. The pace slowed in 2015, but the parade showed off much of the previous years’ handiwork, including a redesigned KN-08 ICBM that looks way more plausible that the dummies (simulators) showed off in the 2012 and 2013 parades. One lovely little detail: the plaque on the side describes the new version as an improved “Hwasong-13 launcher overseen by Comrade Kim Jong Un.” Which is perfect because the uppermost stage of the redesigned KN-08 is, just like Kim Jong Un, significantly wider than its predecessor.

But it takes two to tango — or have an arms race. It isn’t just China and North Korea that are parading around new missiles; America’s allies are doing the same.

South Korea has developed new long-range ballistic and cruise missiles. It has released test footage of both and showed off the cruise missile in its own 2013 parade. South Korea also won U.S. permission to modify bilateral missile guidelines so it can develop a 500-mile missile that can reach targets throughout North Korea. South Korea’s missiles are conventionally armed, but South Korean officials like to point out that they are so accurate they can fly through Kim Jong Un’s office window. He loves it when they say that.

Taiwan has developed its own long-range cruise missile, the HF-2e. Taiwan was going to show off this missile in its 2007 parade, but the United States persuaded Taipei that this would be unnecessarily provocative. Taiwan instead just deployed the missile — disguised as delivery trucks! Seriously, locals spotted a new delivery company – like FedEx, not takeout — called “Red Bird Express” on the streets of certain neighborhoods. But the trucks looked like repainted missile transporters. And the livery didn’t include a website or a phone number in case, say, you wanted to send a package. And the business wasn’t registered. Oh, and the trucks were parked at known missiles bases, visible in satellite images. A Taiwanese official later admitted that this was, and I quote, “idiotic.” The Taiwanese seem to have painted the trucks green again and put netting over the parking lot.

Only Japan has passed on joining in the missile race in Northeast Asia, owing to an interpretation of the constitution that seems to prohibit “offensive” weapons like missiles. But that is an interpretation — and interpretations can change. In 2009, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) completed a position paper that said Tokyo should acquire cruise missiles and long-range, solid-fueled, ballistic missiles to deal with the threat of missile launches from North Korea. The LDP lost that election. But recent reports suggest that the hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has quietly resumed discussions with the United States about the possibility of acquiring offensive capabilities to respond to the missile threat from North Korea — although those discussions have not reached the hardware stage. When they do, it will be much harder in coming years to argue that Tokyo should forego the capabilities that all the other Northeast Asian states possess.

So what if Asia has a big missile race?

First, missiles represent one of the fundamental challenges to stability in the modern age — they drastically reduce warning time, forcing decision makers to act under incredible time pressure and stress.

We have an image of August 1914 — thanks to Mrs. Barbara Tuchman, the world’s most overqualified “housewife” — of the European powers driven by rigid mobilization schedules into the abyss of World War I. Historians still argue about whether the parties would have stopped if they could, but it is easy to catch the first glimpse of the pace of modern life in those portentous days. The Guns of August starts with a sort of parade too — a funeral procession. Its opening lines are among the most admired in literature: “So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens — four dowager and three regnant — and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.” The steady pace of procession sets the narrative on a march through crisis and into the horror of the Great War, into the trenches, the slaughter, and the gas.

Conventional missiles are so accurate that they make a perfect weapon to kill a foreign leader in a surprise attack — something the United States tried to do with Saddam Hussein in 2003. In this way, they impose their own rigid demands on leaders. Decisions must be made in the flight time of a missile, or the precious moments following warning by satellite or radar. It is natural to worry that leaders might come to regret decisions about war and peace made under this pressure, and to worry about the tendency to beat the clock by delegating the authority to use missiles to lower-level commanders who might survive.

Which leaves us in quite a pickle. We can keep arming ourselves to the teeth. We can, along with our friends in South Korea, Taiwan, and even Japan, stockpile thousands of conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. We can also continue to deploy missile defenses. There is a growing interest in the United States in more exotic conventional weapons, such as boost-glide systems. The upside is that these capabilities will scare the bejesus out of leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang. The downside is that these missiles will scare the bejesus out of leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang. Whatever we gain in deterrence will also come with a significant helping of paranoia, miscalculation, and surprise. Whether that works out for us or not will be an interesting question.

The other option, of course, is to think about talking through our problems to attempt to find a common interest in making war less likely and, if possible, less hostage to short decision times. At the moment, the countries of Northeast Asia engage in very little regional security dialogue, with almost no serious discussion of strategic issues like nuclear weapons and missile proliferation. While there are official dialogues between the United States and China that do discuss arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation, no one thinks this dialogue comes anywhere near what one would expect for such an important relationship. And even this limited dialogue excludes Taipei, for obvious reasons, and Japan. Meanwhile, our allies in Tokyo and Seoul don’t coordinate with each other owing to historical animosities. And then we have the North Koreans. Talking with Pyongyang is no one’s idea of a good time.

And yet the stakes are so high. Even my colleagues who are really excited about ideas like Air-Sea Battle or acquiring the forces to conduct offensive missile operations against targets in China, have wondered how we go about bombing the crap out of military units in Guangdong without unnecessarily escalating things. Elbridge Colby, the Robert M. Gates senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, has proposed “observing geographic boundaries for such a fight, cordoning off certain kinds of targets, and clearly and credibly communicating efforts at limitation to” the Chinese “are not things that can be done well at the last minute or improvised in the moment.”

So, let’s not improvise. Let’s have that conversation. It is perhaps time to resurrect long-proposed notions like a ban on intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. Such an agreement would prohibit the deployment of MTCR Category I missiles — capable of carrying a 1,100 lbs. payload to 190 miles — up to, but not including, ICBMs such as the DF-31.

I don’t expect an enthusiastic response from Beijing. China has been cool to proposals to “globalize” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, since that would require giving up hundreds of brand new missiles. In 2003, facing U.S. missile deployments in the region, China offered to “pull back” — but not eliminate — its massive inventory of new short-range ballistic missiles near Taiwan in exchange for a reduction in U.S. arms sales to Taipei. The United States understandably showed little interest in such a one-sided offer. While it seems even less likely today, hundreds of missiles later, that China would agree to this proposal, there are new developments. Taiwan’s new cruise missile must be getting some attention. Or maybe the prospect of 800 Japanese Tomahawk missiles would do the trick.

It may be that the conversation does not eliminate any missiles at all. But perhaps it would be the beginning of an effort by Asian leaders to seriously discuss the dangers of making decisions under pressure and the challenges of keeping local disputes from escalating into a general war. It’s time to start talking. The missile race underway in Northeast Asia is dangerous and destabilizing. If the Guns of August was depressing, the Missiles of August will be worse.

Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images; ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 23, 2015: In 2014, North Korea tested a 125-mile range version of the KN-02 missile. A previous version of this article mistakenly said it had tested a 125-mile range version of the KN-08.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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