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NOT SUCH A GREAT WALL



Published: Wed, June 20, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune: What a dreamer was China's Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. Some 2,200 years ago, the despot hatched one of the wackiest defense projects of all times: a 1,500-mile wall from the mountains of Korea to the Gobi Desert. This early version of a missile shield cost a pretty penny, but visionary Qin knew what he was after: a sure defense against the marauding barbarians to the north.

Oh, if only the emperor had hired a consulting firm. He might have discovered then what we know now: Great walls make good tourist attractions, but they're not so hot at stopping invasions. Defensive action sometimes looks offensive. Pouring money into monumental projects keeps bread from the mouths of babes. And if the marauding barbarians are really out to get you, they'll find a way.

If Emperor Qin had listened to such counsel, we'd be missing one of the world's great wonders. But if President Bush doesn't heed it, the world may face new perils. Bush is pushing a latter-day version of the Great Wall, meant to shield against nuclear missile attack. It's an alluring idea, but it's not at all clear it will make the planet safer, which Bush says is his intention.

Devastating retaliation: The world is full of weapons, some in the hands of madmen. Every sane soul wants to keep them out of the sky. Indeed, Bush says the missile shield's purpose is to protect the world from attacks by rogue states -- the few malevolent regimes whose leaders are daft enough to fire off a nuke despite the certainty of devastating retaliation.

Nabbing a missile after it's been launched is a tricky business, and many engineers say a foolproof shield may never be devised. And even if it assured complete protection from rogue missiles, the shield might not be worth the expense. There's the multibillion-dollar price tag to consider, but other costs must be mulled as well. Bush's defense system would entail scrapping of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the foundation of global arms control. The prospect of a new arms race rightly alarms all of Europe, not to mention Moscow.

Perhaps no nation is as alarmed as China, which takes Bush's plan quite personally. Its leaders note that the U.S. shield would smother China's small nuclear deterrent, and suspect that this may be one of the plan's goals. James Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, denied any such intent in meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing last month. But the reassurance is hard for China to take to heart. President Bush has lately been calling the Chinese "strategic competitors" -- not partners, as President Bill Clinton used to call them. And the Pentagon is talking about redeploying a third of U.S. troops in Europe to the Pacific. Why? Apparently to keep an eye on China.

If the United States is looking for a Chinese military threat, it can certainly create one. Regarding the nation as hostile is one sure way to stoke its hostility. Building a missile-defense shield China finds threatening is another.




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