World Leaders Relieved at Missile Defense Shelving

Traditional foes of the United States as well as longtime allies expressed relief and praise after President Clinton’s decision to shelve a national missile defense system, saying it was a sensible move that avoids jarring the international balance of power.

China offered understated praise today, describing Clinton’s decision as “rational.” Russian President Vladimir Putin was more direct, calling it a “well thought-out and responsible step.”

Britain, France, Germany and Canada also weighed in, saying the president was wise not to rush into the project.

Clinton said Friday he is not convinced the technology is at hand to build an effective anti-missile shield, and will leave it to the next president to decide whether to deploy a national missile defense system. Republican candidate George W. Bush supports rapid deployment of the system; his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, has been noncommittal.

China’s Response Calm

China fiercely opposes the proposed shield as a security threat that could force it to build more long-range nuclear missiles. However, the government’s reaction today was surprisingly muted.

“The decision is rational,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said in a statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency. “We hope that the U.S. government will have more contact and discussions with other countries on the matter, so as to make a decision which could serve the interests of countries and peoples all over the world.”

China fears a U.S. missile shield would undermine its limited long-range nuclear deterrent, and that it could be extended to shield Taiwan, which separated from Beijing amid civil war 51 years ago.

Relief in Moscow, Regret in Taiwan

The Taiwanese government did not immediately react to Clinton’s decision. However, lawmaker Lee Wen-chung, a member of President Chen Shui-bian’s party, said the move was regrettable and he hoped the new U.S. president would push the program forward more aggressively.

Putin said Friday the decision did not mean Washington and Moscow share common opinions about a national missile defense. He said Russia will continue to promote nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

“The given step … will lead to strengthening strategic stability and security in the whole world, and will raise the United States’ authority in the eyes of the international community,” Putin said.

Europe Approves

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said his country welcomed Clinton’s approach, saying the president had taken careful account of the views of U.S. allies and other international partners who cautioned him against making a rushed decision.

“We look forward to continuing dialogue on this subject with the current U.S. administration, and in due course with its successor and with our NATO allies and others,” Cook said.

French President Jacques Chirac took note with “great interest” of Clinton’s decision, saying the project “risks jeopardizing the strategic balance and restarting the arms race,” according to presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna.

A German government spokesman praised Clinton’s move as a “wise decision,” and said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had personally urged Clinton “not to make a hasty decision.”

Keeping the Global Balance

Canada weighed in as well.

“We are gratified that, among other things, the president has taken into account the concerns of U.S. allies and the potential risk for global strategic stability in not committing at this time to proceed with deployment,” said Michael G’slaughnessy, a spokesman for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

The proposed national missile defense, projected to cost about $60 billion, is designed to protect the 50 U.S. states from attack by a limited number of long-range ballistic missiles from North Korea or the Middle East. It is a scaled-down version of the global missile defense pursued during the Reagan administration, which became known as Star Wars for its focus on space-based lasers and other exotic weaponry.