CANBERRA: Just before Japan announced its decision to buy an unproven US missile shield to defend itself against any future North Korean attack the Australian Government took a much cheaper option.
It announced its decision to seek a research role in support of the multi-layered systems being developed by America’s Missile Defence Agency.
Although overshadowed by the later Japanese commitment to spend tens of billions of dollars to acquire an MD or Missile Defence capability as soon as 2007 the Australian move adds to regional concerns that the programme may spur a dangerous Asian arms race.
The Indonesian government said Australia’s decision could destabilize the region and spark a regional contest to acquire increasingly sophisticated offensive and defensive systems.
“Australia should deal with its neighbours and not try to isolate itself from the region,” the Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman, Marty Natelgawa told Australian reporters.
“Our view has always been that research into such a system opens the potential for a new round of arms race. It could be potentially destabilizing,” he said.
“As far as Indonesia is concerned, destabilization is not something that’s inevitable but from where we stand at the moment we see these things offer more uncertainties or complications rather than solutions.”
The Chinese embassy in Canberra refused to comment on the Australian support for the MD system or even discuss the lessening of fears about ‘rogue states’ following the Libyan decision to abandon its weapons programmes.
Its silence was a clear diplomatic signal of displeasure and put the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer on the defensive.
“The arms race argument is absurd,” Downer said. “While China has never supported our position they increasingly understand that it isn’t directed either at them, or the China-Taiwan issue.
“Australia is not being an American lacky as some of our critics claim. Our concern is the possibility of long range missiles being fired at Australia.
“We have to have some capacity to defend ourselves.”
However the analytical briefings being given in Canberra include some additional elements.
A comparison is being drawn between the economic stresses President Reagan’s Star Wars programme put on an already failing Soviet economy in its final years and the impact the ‘little’ or baby Star Wars technology of the MD programme might impose on the cash starved regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.
Even though the Star Wars missile defence umbrella for the US was later declared a technological impossibility it is often argued to have been the most lethal mind game ever waged by one superpower against another.
The US ambassador in Australia, Thomas Schieffer keeps comparing the two programmes in his public comments.
“Star Wars was a strategic system designed to deter great powers like Russia and China. This system is directed only at rogue states. We hope that China and Russia will participate. We do not think it is a threat,” he said.
Whether designed to bring down the North Korean economy, or any missiles it might fire at Japanese, if not Australian or American targets, the MD programme seems likely to get conditional support from Mark Latham, the new leader of the Australian Labour Party.
In the few weeks that he has been opposition leader, Latham has put Labour into serious contention to beat the current conservative coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard in the general election which must be held sometime in 2004.
While Latham has refused to give immediate endorsement to an Australian role in the US programme pending future discussions party sources say he favours participation because it would give the country a seat at the table when crucial decisions where being made.
Apart from that Latham has pledged to maintain defence ties with the US despite calling President George W Bush ‘the most dangerous American president in history.’
Canberra defence analyst Geoffrey Barker said the MD system was technically speculative and strategically momentous.
“It is especially likely to have repercussions in our region, where China, our most important emerging trading partner, is deeply sceptical.
“It overturns three decades of thinking on nuclear containment based on the deterrent of mutually assured destruction and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It also promises to be prohibitively costly, with a down payment of $50 billion over the next five years, though Australia’s contribution will be small.”
And the doubts keep mounting up, like the costs. In September the US General Accounting Office noted that only two of ten technologies vital to the success of the missile shield are proven. The American Physical Society, representing eminent physicists and engineers linked to the defence establishment, had declared that a crucial part of the missile shield, stopping a missile during the rocket boost phase, might never work.
However, defence sources in Canberra say the initial system looks promising, being based on Aegis class destroyers firing SM- 3 interceptor rockets toward rising hostile missiles and ground based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles mopping up those that made it closer to their targets.
Unfortunately promising doesn’t mean fool proof or terrorist proof. None of the analysts briefing the Australian media could explain how the MD system would stop the personal delivery of a nuclear or biological weapon via a briefcase.—Dawn/The Observer News Service.