In November 1996, I had the good fortune to attend an ISODARCO conference in Chengdu, with the added bonus of a side trip to visit China’s nuclear laboratory complex at Mianyang. Back then, ISODARCO – an enterprising Italian NGO founded in 1966 by Edoardo Amaldi and Carlo Schaerf — had somehow managed to corner the market on Track II conversations on strategic issues with Chinese counterparts. Not sure how the Italians managed to do this.

To my knowledge, the Mianyang visit was the first of its kind. Needless to say, foreign visitors were on a very short leash, but our entry was a significant gesture by our Chinese hosts, demonstrating serious intent to engage on strategic issues. These doors were soon closed as a result of the Cox Commission inquiry and report.

Jeffrey, our ACW information-gathering omnivore, somehow got ahold of my trip report and passed it along. My seventeen year-old assessment demonstrates, in dismaying detail, how ritualistic the anxieties over missile defenses have become. Countries of concern may have changed – back then, coercive PLA missile tests prompted debates over selling TMD to Taiwan — but not much else. Have a look:

Chinese concerns about TMD appear to be strongly felt, if considerably over-dramatized. Since unimpeded and deep reductions of US and Russian strategic forces are in China’s national security interest, it makes complete sense that Beijing would support strongly the ABM Treaty and embrace fully the arguments developed in the United States to defend the treaty. Nonetheless, the crux of Chinese concerns over TMD clearly appears to be related to Taiwan and Japan, not to their public litany of arguments.

China would clearly rather not have to deal with new defense requirements posed by TMD deployments in East Asia. None of the Chinese participants second-guessed the PLA’ s missile tests directed against Taiwan, even in private, but surely they must now appreciate the boost that these firings have given to TMD programs in the United States. On the other hand, several Chinese colleagues said in private that the exercises “worked,” in that they reduced support in Taiwan for independence. It will be very interesting to see what lessons the PLA has internalized as a result of its missile-firing military exercises…

Great care is therefore required regarding the provision of TMD to East Asia. How does the United States convey the messages that we are prepared to support friends against threatening missile attacks, that we are serious about devaluing weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems, but also that we wish to further improve bilateral relations with China? US actions regarding TMD need to be calibrated in order to be interpreted correctly by Beijing. If US messages are misinterpreted, the TMD issue could foster troubling behavior by Beijing across a broad range of issues…

The worst case assessments of advanced TMD deployments circulated by some US arms control groups have subsequently been adopted in toto by the Chinese government. US opponents of advanced TMD, however, do not believe that the THAAD or Navy Upper Tier programs would actually provide the coverage they have depicted, since they assume that relatively simple counter-measures would vastly shrink the defended area or eliminate it entirely. Nonetheless, US analysts who present the worst case have done so in the belief that Russian and Chinese experts would likely succumb to worst case thinking and over-react in negative ways.

My sense from talking privately with Chinese technical experts is that they, too, clearly understand the utility of counter-measures. As one Chinese participant told me in confidence, China understands that its case against TMD is quite overdrawn, but that it is “practical” to adopt a worst case view. This is not to say that China views US missile defense programs with equanimity. To the contrary, Chinese experts are most definitely concerned about the possible negative impact of US missile defense programs on deep, deep cuts in US and Russian arsenals, and China strenuously opposes TMD deployments in Taiwan and Japan. The combined deployment of advanced TMD and multi-site national missile defenses would greatly trouble China. But these are very different concerns than China’s public stance, which echoes the case made in the United States by some NGOs.

A perverse feedback loop is at work here: The worst case that arms controllers warned about has been rhetorically embraced by China, even though experts from both countries know better. How might NGOs avoid this echo chamber effect whereby worst case assessments become mutually reinforcing, just as in the Cold War? In the future, it might make sense to think about the formulation of arguments with multiple audiences in mind. For example, in addition to showing vugraphs of the considerable theoretical potential of upper tier TMD systems, why not also show how coverage would shrink due to countermeasures? A refocusing of the TMD debate, especially on the Navy’s upper tier’s susceptibility to countermeasures, might be particularly useful at this time for both domestic and foreign audiences.

It makes sense that debates over BMD are as ritualistic as those over nuclear weapons and arms reduction treaties. All have much in common: deployments and agreements are highly symbolic, and in most cases, political utility exceeds military utility. The dramatis personae fear slippery slopes, so argue tenaciously to avoid ceding any ground. Habits of mind are passed along from one generation to the next, and the debaters rarely depart from well-rehearsed scripts.

Debates over missile defenses are prompted by three circumstances: (1) when arms controllers seek to constrain missile defense programs and deployments; (2) when true believers in BMD assume positions of responsibility in a new administration; and (3) when prompted by the actions of a competitively disadvantaged nuclear-armed state.

The first of these conditions no longer applies to treaties, but continues unabated since skeptics remain convinced that the military utility of missile defense programs do not justify their expense. The second is likely to reoccur with the next Republican administration. The third condition – states that seek to gain leverage by means of missile flight tests — is now the principal driver of BMD programs and deployments. Whenever these coercive warnings occur, skeptics of missile defenses highlight the military deficiencies of BMD, while downgrading their symbolic and political utility.

Advocates of missile defenses are on weak ground when they argue for deployments at any cost, regardless of technical limitations. Skeptics of missile defenses are on weak ground when they diminish the political and symbolic value of missile defenses. How much BMD is required to convey alliance solidarity against a weak but unpredictable state like North Korea and to help shore up the NPT? Not that much – and certainly not enough to negate the Russian and Chinese nuclear deterrents.

Nonetheless, anxieties about missile defenses are imprinted in the Kremlin’s DNA, and it would be most unwise for Washington to take steps that would unnecessarily lead Moscow to retain nuclear force structure or for Beijing to expand it. Great care has always been required in sizing national missile defense deployments. In my view, the strongest argument against a third NMD site is that deploying more deeply flawed interceptors constitutes an ill-conceived jobs program. Repeating dire warnings emanating from Moscow is not a strong argument. Russian as well as Chinese strategic analysts and defense scientists are quite competent. They know how to penetrate US missile defenses. So why get so spun up by echoes from the Cold War?