Spring 2024 Bulletin

Understanding Chinese and Russian Views on U.S. Missile Defense

Ottawa Sanders
Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament
Four missiles pointed upwards against a sky at sunset, showing hues of blue, brown, orange, and yellow.
Photo by Hamara/Shutterstock.com.

By Ottawa Sanders, Raymond Frankel Nuclear Security Policy Fellow 

In today’s world—characterized by great-power competition and ongoing crises in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East—missile defense, previously a Cold War concern, has resurfaced as a prominent issue.1 State and non-state actors are relying on missile capabilities to achieve their military objectives. For example, in Yemen, Houthi forces have launched missiles originating from Iran against military and civilian targets in the Middle East. The missile threat plays a significant role in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza wars. North Korea’s missile program is progressing, and in recent years it has conducted missile tests in East Asia, escalating tensions with U.S. allies in the region. And China and Russia are enhancing their missile capabilities, further complicating relations between the United States and China and between the United States and Russia. 

The United States allocates significant resources to address regional and global missile threats. It is developing, testing, and deploying missile defense technology designed to counter short-, medium-, intermediate-, and long-range missiles. The U.S. missile defense system utilizes a network of sensors, radars, and interceptor missiles positioned globally, alongside a command, control, battle management, and communication network to protect the homeland from adversarial attacks and to ensure the security of its regional allies and partners.2 Since the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, adversaries such as China and Russia have expressed concerns about the U.S. missile defense system.3 These concerns have amplified in recent years, heightening U.S. tensions with China and Russia. Scholars and policymakers are actively seeking to comprehend how U.S. adversaries perceive U.S. missile defense, in an effort to foster mutual understanding and common ground. This effort is crucial for alleviating tensions and averting conflict escalation.

In April 2023, the Academy’s project on Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament published Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China to address the growing tensions and worrisome trends for the security and stability of the global nuclear order.4 The publication features contributions from two experts: Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow at the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations. 

In their respective essays, the authors discuss China’s and Russia’s concerns regarding the expansion of U.S. missile defense capabilities. Both China and Russia maintain that U.S. missile defense undermines strategic stability by compromising their ability to retaliate against a nuclear first strike.5 The authors offer recommendations for improving strategic relations between the United States and China and between the United States and Russia. They emphasize the importance of candid discussions as a way to resolve misunderstandings regarding the intentions and missile defense capabilities of China, Russia, and the United States. 

U.S. Missile Defense Through the Eyes of China

In his contribution, Tong Zhao pre­sents China’s perspective on U.S. missile defense capabilities. He explains that China is worried that future U.S. missile defense systems may undermine China’s nuclear deterrent capabilities. He notes that “China has long been concerned that the United States could launch a comprehensive nuclear first strike on China and then use its missile defenses to intercept the surviving Chinese nuclear missiles,”6 thereby degrading its second-strike capability. The United States harbors its own concerns. Policymakers and influential figures in Washington are growing increasingly apprehensive about China’s nuclear modernization efforts. Zhao mentions that in order for both parties to show a commitment to cooperative initiatives regarding missile defense, China may need to consider making concessions for its nuclear expansion to persuade Washington to be open to discussions about its missile defense program. According to Zhao, “an exchange of ideas about the specific missile defense and nuclear restraints each would like to see from the other would be helpful.”7 However, given the tense relations between the United States and China, pursuing such cooperative measures may be difficult and Beijing may be motivated to take unilateral actions to address the perceived missile threat from the United States. These actions could include expanding China’s nuclear forces and strengthening its missile defense capabilities.

Zhao offers recommendations on how progress regarding the strategic relationship between the United States and China may be possible. His recommendations include managing the connection between strategic and regional missile defenses, addressing the overlap of missile defense and anti-satellite technologies, mitigating the impact of the North Korean threat on U.S.-China strategic relations, and reducing crisis instability. In terms of managing the connection between strategic and regional missile defenses, China is less concerned about regional missile defense systems deployed by the United States and more concerned about the potential impact that U.S. strategic missile defenses may have on China’s own strategic nuclear deterrent against the United States. According to Zhao, “address­ing the Chinese concern about American strategic missile defenses should remain the priority of bilateral discussions.”8

As for the overlap between missile defense and anti-satellite technologies, Zhao notes that China has demonstrated interest in developing anti-satellite (ASAT) technologies—capabilities that target satellites in space—to counter U.S. space-based assets, such as sensors and some command, control, and communication satellites that support missile defense systems. This outcome is concerning for the United States because China’s ASAT technologies could potentially undermine U.S. space-based capabilities. Zhao maintains that Chinese concerns about missile defense and U.S. concerns about ASAT technologies can “create space for mutual compromise.”9

To mitigate the impact of the North Korean threat, it is important to note that the U.S.-China-North Korea trilateral relationship has implications for how the Chinese perceive the U.S. missile threat. The United States claims that its strategic missile defense capability is designed to counter the threat posed by North Korea. However, China feels that it may also be a target. As a way forward, Zhao maintains that Washington and Beijing should discuss the best combination of capabilities that would give the United States the ability to defend against North Korea but not be too threatening toward China. 

Zhao also discusses the risk that missile defense could increase crisis instability between the United States and China. He states that “the specific thinking and policies of the United States and China could affect the likelihood of conflict initiation and the risk of escalation.”10 For example, China is suspicions that the U.S. left-of-launch concept, which seeks to target offensive missile threats prior to launch, may lead the United States to use missile defense as a guise for preemptive strikes. Furthermore, China’s countermeasures to U.S. missile defense may lead to inadvertent escalation during a crisis. Zhao concludes by stating that a “better understanding of each other’s thinking is urgently necessary if China and the United States are to address crisis instability.”11  

U.S. Missile Defense Through the Eyes of Russia 

In his essay, Dmitry Stefanovich presents the Russian perspective on U.S. missile defense. Like China, Russia is also concerned that U.S. missile defense systems undermine Russia’s second-strike capability. “The basis of the Russian concern with missile defense,” writes Stefanovich, is that “. . . it is designed to minimize the effects of the strategic delivery systems still able to launch after the United States carries out a first counterforce strike.”12 In other words, Russia fears that U.S. missile defense would erode its ability to retaliate in response to a U.S. attack on its forces. According to Stefanovich, hypersonic weapons, which are highly maneuverable weapons that travel at least five times the speed of sound, are an important countermeasure that Russia has developed to help overcome adversarial missile defenses.13 Russia’s Avangard missile system, classified as a hypersonic glide vehicle, was deployed in late 2019 and represents “the first operational strategic hypersonic weapon in the world.”14  

Stefanovich explains that Russian military planners are concerned about the deployment of U.S. space capabilities that enable and enhance Earth-based missile defenses. These include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities as well as early warning systems. Russia is also concerned about the global nature of U.S. missile defense, especially the distribution of U.S. missile defense assets and those in positions in close proximity to Russia. Stefanovich writes that with a few exceptions, “Russia deploys hardly any missile defense assets abroad,” yet it does have a growing missile defense capability.15  He notes that this trend “might lead both to Russian officials better understanding the U.S. drivers of missile defense development and to U.S. officials taking a greater interest in joint limits (or at least transparency) on existing and future missile defenses.”16 Engaging in open discussions about present and anticipated missile defense systems could pave the way for collaboration in the future.

Stefanovich offers several suggestions for future cooperation. He calls for more open Track I discussions between the United States and Russia.17 At present, such negotiations are at a standstill. Russian officials maintain that missile defense must be a part of discussions concerning strategic stability, yet the United States has resisted because U.S. officials believe that missile defense capabilities are necessary to defend against “rogue states” like North Korea. Stefanovich suggests that the United States could unilaterally use less aggressive language in its next Missile Defense Review as a way of encouraging dialogue.18 Furthermore, Russia appears to be open to non-legally binding agreements and this could create opportunities for a new era of arms control. Stef­anovich offers that while we might not see a document similar to the 1972 ABM Treaty, addressing misperceptions and misunderstandings will be crucial in future agreements. 

A Broader Discussion 

As the publication on Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China shows, it is vital that U.S. policymakers gain a better understanding of China’s and Russia’s perspectives on U.S. missile defense as a way to improve U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia strategic relations and preclude armed conflict and crisis escalation. To further narrow the gaps in our understanding, on January 23, 2024, the Academy partnered with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to host a round­table discussion that explored some of the broader ideas presented in the publication. The participants, who joined either online or in person, represented both the academic and policy communities. The meeting featured Tong Zhao, who shared an overview of his findings and recommendations, and Steven E. Miller (Harvard Kennedy School), chair of the Academy’s project on Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament, who served as the discussant. Some of the topics discussed included perceptions and misperceptions fueling mistrust between the United States and China, the potential for arms races, the significance of communication in understanding intentions and capabilities, and the impact of U.S. missile defense on China’s nuclear modernization program. The Academy is pursuing future opportunities to engage with Chinese and Russian experts and former officials on missile defense and related issues through the Track II dialogues that are a component of the Academy’s Promoting Dialogue project. 

The continuing conflict in Ukraine, the potential for armed confrontation over Taiwan, and other persistent regional crises may worsen U.S. bilateral relations with China and Russia. Given that all three nuclear-armed major powers are enhancing their missile defense capabilities, it is crucial for the United States to take into account the concerns of both China and Russia with respect to its own missile defense, and for China and Russia to do so as well. This approach would foster some stability in U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations amid prolonged and potential future conflicts. 

As for where we go from here, the Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China publication poses several questions regarding the future of U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations in the context of missile defense.

  • What domestic, regional, and international conditions need to be in place to help facilitate U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia negotiations on missile defense? 
  • What are the consequences of speculating on the worst-case scenarios regarding the future missile defense capabilities of the United States, Russia, and China? 
  • What impact do misperceptions and misunderstandings about doctrine, force posture, and capabilities have on U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia strategic relations? 
  • Could missile defense negotiations lead to future arms control efforts? 

Answers to these questions may be uncertain. However, better managing the competition between the United States and China and ending Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine could create the kinds of conditions needed for U.S. bilateral negotiations with China and Russia on missile defense. Yet, given the complex geopolitical dynamics between the three powers, such negotiations may not occur in the near term. Furthermore, the consequences of speculating on worst-case scenarios may further erode trust, and misperceptions and misunderstandings about doctrine, force posture, and capabilities risk conflict initiation and escalation. Yet, a silver lining is that U.S. bilateral negotiations with China and Russia, if they were to take place and succeed, could potentially lead to arms control in other areas. With that said, failure to address the missile defense concerns of the United States, China, and Russia could endanger the populations of these countries and pose a threat to the global community.

To learn more about the Academy’s project on Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament, please visit the Academy’s website.


  • 1A missile is an offensive weapon used to strike a target. Missile defense is a weapon system designed to intercept an incoming adversary missile.
  • 2U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency, “The Missile Defense System.”
  • 3The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a 1972 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union that sought to place limits on the anti-missile systems of both countries. The United States withdrew from the treaty in 2002 because officials argued that the treaty prevented the United States from developing defenses against terrorist ballistic missile attacks. For more information on the ABM Treaty, see Arms Control Association, “The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty at a Glance.”
  • 4Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China is accessible on the Academy’s website.
  • 5Strategic stability, as defined here, consists of two dimensions. The first one concerns arms race stability, defined as an absence of an action-reaction cycle to build up nuclear forces. And the second is crisis stability, defined as the absence of an incentive to initiate nuclear use.
  • 6Tong Zhao, “Managing the Impact of Missile Defense on U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” in Tong Zhao and Dmitry Stefanovich, Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2023), 2.
  • 7Ibid., 5.
  • 8Ibid., 13.
  • 9Ibid., 18.
  • 10Ibid., 26.
  • 11Ibid., 28.
  • 12Dmitry Stefanovich, “The Indispensable Link: Strategic Defensive Capabilities as a Cornerstone of Arms Control and Arms Racing,” in Tong Zhao and Dmitry Stefanovich, Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship among the United States, Russia, and China (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2023), 32.
  • 13In addition to Russia, China has also acquired hypersonic weapons. The United States is actively pursuing the development of hypersonic weapons and it has some limited hypersonic capabilities. For more information on hypersonic weapons, see Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Fact Sheet: Hypersonic Weapons.”
  • 14Stefanovich, “The Indispensable Link: Strategic Defensive Capabilities as a Cornerstone of Arms Control and Arms Racing,” 36.
  • 15Ibid., 43.
  • 16Ibid.
  • 17Track I dialogues are a form of diplomacy that entails dialogue between heads of state, diplomats, and other high-ranking government officials for the purposes of building relationships and fostering peace. Track II dialogues are unofficial exchanges between nongovernmental experts. For more information on Track I and Track II dialogues, see Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Multi-Track Diplomacy Explained.”
  • 18The Missile Defense Review is an unclassified document that lays out the strategy, policies, and capabilities that inform the U.S. missile defense program. As of this writing, the 2022 Missile Defense Review is the most recent version. See U.S. Department of Defense, 2022 Missile Defense Review (Washington, D.C.: Office of Secretary of Defense, 2022).