BY EVA CHENG
The delicate balance between the nuclear powers is up for a potentially dangerous shake-up after Russia and China on July 16 struck a formal alliance aimed at countering US President George W. Bush's "Son of Star Wars" anti-missile shield.
Both countries see the National Missile Defence (NMD) scheme as a threat. While it will only hurt, rather than completely neutralise, the still powerful long-distance weapon delivery capability of Russia, it will seriously undermine China's much smaller yet hitherto effective deterrence ability.
The NMD will violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, to which the US and Russia are parties. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned repeatedly that the ABM treaty is still too important to global stability to junk, a point which Bush has ignored.
China's objections to the NMD have been even more vehement, but have been similarly pushed aside.
Then came the friendship pact, unveiled hard on the heels of the US's July 14 test for the NMD, its fourth, which Washington declared a success.
China and Russia haven't made a treaty of this nature for 51 years, and it prominently emphasised the two countries' conviction that the ABM Treaty is a cornerstone of global strategic stability.
After the signing Putin persisted on the question of global stability, saying: "We proceed from the fact that predictable relations between such large world powers such as China and Russia will have a substantive and beneficial influence on world affairs."
China's President Jiang Zemin was even more direct, pointing to the "unipolar" world which the US dominates, and adding "more active cooperation between our countries in discussing missile defences and disarmament will enhance our efforts in building a multipolar world".
In the treaty Russia also made a special point of supporting China's claims over Taiwan — a sharp contrast with the US's use of Taiwan as a pawn in its longstanding anti-China campaign. Bush has said Taiwan will be "protected" by his planned missile shield.
In another move to counter the NMD, Putin proposed in early July that the five established nuclear countries slash their collective stockpile of warheads from 14,000 at present to 4000 by 2008, and act to preserve the ABM treaty.
As both Russia and China are members of this "club of five", Putin's move seems designed to draw in support from France and Britain, the remaining two members, both of whom have conspiciously failed to embrace the NMD plan.
When the Cold War was ending in 1990, the US and Russia each had more than 10,000 strategic warheads. Concerted reductions under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) brought the US's warhead numbers in early 2001 down to 7295 and Russia's to 6094, compared to the target of 6000 each set for the end of this year. (France and Britain have a few hundred warheads each and China is believed to have fewer than 20.)
Under the 1993 START II, which still hasn't completed ratification by the US, Russia and the US are to cut their warhead levels to 3500 each.
But, despite the Russian Duma having already ratified START II in April 2000, Putin threatened in March not to implement the START II if the US went ahead with the missile shield.
Shortly before the July 14 test, the head of Putin's Security Council, Vladimir Rushailo, told reporters in Belarus that unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty "would lead to the destruction of strategic stability, a new powerful spiral in arms race, particularly in space, and the development of means for overcoming the national missile defence system".
Bush's arms race
Bush's excuse that the NMD will enhance global stability — by way of its ability to nullify the attacks from a small number of missiles from "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iraq — is hollow because it ignores the near-certainty that the shield plan will spark a competitive arms buildup across the board.
US Senate foreign relations committee chairperson Joseph Biden pointed to this issue succinctly on July 15, saying "Are we in a more secure world if we could knock down eight out of 10 missiles that are fired from North Korea sometime in the future, if in the process there are now 800 instead of 18 ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] in China, 800 ICBMs in India?"
The Pentagon is asking for US$8.3 billion to fund the missile shield next year, a 57% jump from 2001. The expenses are set to increase sharply as the NMD's 2005 target launch date nears. In the next 18 months alone, the Pentagon plans to conduct up to 17 more tests, compared with only four tests in the last two years.
Meanwhile, little is being given to projects to help Russia scale down its nuclear, chemical and biological weapon industries. The US is currently involved in 30 such projects, involving a total of US$800 million in funds a year.
The Bush administration has just finished reviewing these programs and announced on July 16 that two of them will end or "restructure". A White House spokesperson added that some of the "big-ticket" programs whose budgets have already been slashed or criticised by the Congress are likely to shut down or "refocussed".
One of the affected projects seeks to dispose of hundreds of tonnes of military plutonium which can help build thousands of warheads.
Another, dubbed the "Nuclear Cities Initiative", seeks to downsize a number of Russian cities, often geographically and economically isolated but which are home to 760,000 people and which were devoted predominantly to weapons development. One integral task of this scheme is to help create non-military work for the 122,000 nuclear scientists being affected.
According to the "Nuclear Status Report of the former Soviet Union", produced by two private think tanks and released in Washington in early June, such projects have in the past decade helped Russia dismantle or destroy 258 ICBMs, at least 50 ICBM silos, 42 strategic bombers and 17 nuclear-powered submarines containing 256 ballistic missile launchers.
Given Russia's huge weapon stockpile inherited from the Cold War, there is a need for many more such reductions.
Moreover, some of these programs seek to address the critical need to secure Russia's nuclear storage sites, which contain dangerous items such as warheads, plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Although 45 such sites were said to have been secured, at least 24 others remain untouched.
Washington has complained about Russia's increasing reluctance to provide access to some of these sites, but this situation, if true, is certainly not going to be helped by Washington's launching of the NMD.
Despite Bush's enthusiasm for the NMD, the system itself is still far from ready. Only two of the last four tests were declared a success and even the Pentagon said it was too early to decide whether all the objectives of the July 14 test have been met.
Lieutenant-General Ronald Kadish, the director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said on July 15: "We've got a long road ahead ... We do not know for certain that every objective was met. In all probability, some of them were not."
Even before the test, critics said its design was flawed: instead of using multiple decoys, which would likely be the case in real situations, only one decoy was used. Moreover, instead of employing a cone-shaped target which would more closely mimic the cone shapes of real warheads, a lone, round, more easily distinguishable balloon was used.
Pentagon officials quickly responded by saying that more sophisticated decoys will be used in the future.
An October 1999 test was also immediately declared a success. But according to the July 16 New York Times, subsequent analysis revealed that the kill vehicle of that test had drifted off course and had initially homed in on a decoy balloon, instead of the warhead.
Critics asserted, the paper added, that the decoy, which happened to be drifting near the warhead, had actually drew the kill vehicle toward the target.
Despite Bush's rhetoric about securing peace, his missile shield scheme will greatly boost, rather than dampen, worldwide proliferation of weapon systems of mass destruction.
Doubtless, his immediate aim is to consolidate the US's existing dominance — but this can only come about at a potentially very high price for the rest of us.