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Stratcom Signals PRC on Missile Defense

The man at the pointy end of the spear of missile defense and of nuclear weapons warned today that the US must carefully weigh any increase in missile defense -- particularly on the west coast -- to avoid triggering a "destabilizing" reaction by the Peoples Republic of China.

"We have to be cautious about missile defense...[which] can be destabilizing if you are not careful," said Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Strategic Command and one of the military’s brightest brains. When the US places anti-ballistic missile assets on the West Coast, "What does it make the Chinese think...?" he asked. But the difficult calculus of deterrence includes other threats, Chilton made clear: "On the other hand, how do you deal with a North Korea?" Then he added Iran to the threat equation.

But his efforts at balance notwithstanding, Chilton was most passionate in his missile defense remarks about China, a fact noted by a military observer at this morning's breakfast. In fact, they were the only remarks that elicited a clear emotional response from the general during more than an hour of delivering a speech and answering questions at this morning's breakfast sponsored by the National Defense University Foundation.

Bear in mind that Chilton played host at the end of last month at a pretty extraordinary meeting with the head of China's military, Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission where they engaged in "frank dialogue." In diplomatic lingo, such "frank" discussions are the closest thing one gets to bloodshed, indicating that difficult issues were addressed in some detail. It was impossible to find out after the breakfast whether Chilton's comments arose from his talks with Gen. Xu but it seems a reasonable conclusion. We are trying to get clarification on this from Strategic Command.

Chilton's missile defense comments highlight "a dynamic we've seen playing out in the past, when sophisticated countries with nuclear capabilities do not stand still" when faced with potentially destabilizing deployments of new weapons, said Bruce MacDonald, senior director of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States and an expert on Chinese military space capabilities. "This underscores why we need more dialogue with the Chinese, because they are capable of sending such conflicting signals on strategic issues."

Chilton seemed keenly aware of this need, sending another signal to the Chinese (and other governments). Military to military talks, such as those recently restarted between the PRC and the US, "should be the very last things that should be turned off" when two nations grow irritated about some issue

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