Canada and the World

WORRYING ABOUT MISSILE DEFENCE

Washington wants a missile defence shield. China and the Europeans say no. Canada may end up caught in the middle

Julian Beltrame March 5 2001
Canada and the World

WORRYING ABOUT MISSILE DEFENCE

Washington wants a missile defence shield. China and the Europeans say no. Canada may end up caught in the middle

Julian Beltrame March 5 2001

WORRYING ABOUT MISSILE DEFENCE

Canada and the World

Washington wants a missile defence shield. China and the Europeans say no. Canada may end up caught in the middle

Julian Beltrame

Prime Minister Jean Chrétiens gaffe underscored the bind Canada finds itself in. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Ottawa last week, in part to discuss a U.S. scheme to build a futuristic shield against nuclear missile attacks, Chrétien told the House of Commons that President George W. Bush “will not proceed” with the plan over the objections of NATO, Russia and China. If true, that would make a lot of people breathe easier. Most European nations oppose the cosdy and controversial scheme known as national missile defence, while both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese arms control envoy Sha Zukang have urged Canada to use its special relationship to dissuade the United States. But by weeks end, Chrétien had reversed himself. After discussions with Blair, Chrétien admitted that while Washington had pledged to consult others, “in the end, the military decision of any country is made by that very country.” Chrétiens flip-flop was a mistake. But it revealed some wishful thinking about the influence he believes Canada and its NATO allies should have over the latest U.S. missile defence project—and Canada’s uneasiness over the plan. Washington’s proposed system would use radar or satellites to

track incoming missiles, which, in ! theory, would be knocked out of the sky by rockets fired from either land, sea or possibly even space (it would not require any radar installations to be placed on Canag dian soil). Last fall, then-foreign ^ Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy ^ voiced his strong opposition to o. the project. Now, despite signs I Canada is backing away from that I firm stand, government officials I say the basic concerns remain. For 5. one thing, the proposal contravenes the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits nationwide missile shields. For another, deploying one could reignite an arms race as China and Russia bulk up in order to overwhelm the shield if necessary. Warned China’s Sha, who was also in Ottawa last week for talks: “It will destroy the strategic stability in which China and the United States and other countries have been co-operating.”

Chrétien seemed to echo that sentiment during his meeting with Putin in Ottawa on Dec. 18, when he praised the ABM treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability.” But after visiting Bush on Feb. 5, he allowed that “perhaps we’re in a different era” from 1972. Canada’s evolving language may be an acknowledgment that it already believes the batde is lost—Bush’s defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has told the

Europeans that the United States intends to press ahead regardless of their objections. And while voicing opposition to a decision the United States considers a fait accompli might make Canadian politicians feel good, there could be a price to pay for angering Washington. David Rudd, executive director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies in Toronto, notes that Canadas benefits from the North American Aerospace Defence Command might be threatened. Operating out of Colorado Springs, Norad is almost totally funded by the United States—but Canada shares military information. “When those Chinese migrants jumped in their boats and came to British Columbia, who do you think detected them?” asks Rudd. “It wasn’t us.” But other nations are also softening their previous hard line against missile defence. Blair, who visited Bush after his talks in Ottawa, has said Britain will likely comply with an American request to upgrade existing U.S. radar facilities in North Yorkshire. And last week, Moscow proposed an alternative of its own. At a meeting with NATO Secretary General Lord

Robertson, Putin suggested that a new arms race could be avoided if the United States and Europe adopted a more modest system of mobile launchers designed to target short-range, rather than intercontinental, missiles.

Still, France and, most critically, China remain firmly opposed to deployment of a missile defence shield. Paris is concerned about a new arms race. Beijing’s fears are more specific. Unlike Russia, which boasts thousands of nuclear warheads, China is believed to have at most two dozen intercontinental missiles. Sha questioned whether Washington would spend almost $ 100 billion on a system solely to counter possible missile launches from “rogue” nations such as North Korea or Iraq, as it claims. Instead, he maintained, the missile defence system’s true purpose is to intimidate China by threatening to render its limited capabilities obsolete. Opponents of the system fear China could respond by increasing its arsenal. This would cause India and Pakistan, the two other rival nuclear states in the region, to follow.

That’s a big price to pay for a system that may not even work. The missile defence program has been plagued by delays and test setbacks, the most recent coming last July when an interceptor missile failed to hit its target. If the current land-based system proves unworkable, the Bush administration would have to decide whether to develop sea-launched or space-based interceptors. But the main problem, notes University of Toronto Nobel Prize-winning chemist and peace activist John Polanyi, is that no complex, high-tech system can be made foolproof. “It’s not just a major political error,” he said. “It’s a major technological error.”

The arguments against the system are wellknown to Canadian officials. But, says Canada’s new Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley, “rightly or wrongly the United States feels threatened—and we need to acknowledge that any U.S. president will do what he feels is necessary.” It’s that kind of timid response that worries Polanyi. “I’m amazed there is this defeatist feeling in Canada,” he said, noting that Brian Mulroney had the courage to walk away from participating in the ill-fated Star Wars program in the 1980s. The difference may be in the comfort levels between leaders, suggested one Western diplomat. Mulroney and president Ronald Reagan got along famously. But now, he notes, “Canada is feeling a bit insecure about its relations with the new administration.” In the end, the envoy predicts Canada will shake hands with the United States over missile defence. But it will keep the other hand behind its back, fingers crossed, and hope the system won’t work.

With Andrew Phillips in Washington,

Barry Came in London and Fred Weir in Moscow

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