The United States and its allies are in the midst of a major expansion of missile defences in East Asia and the western Pacific. The planned network is designed to quickly detect the launch of a ballistic missile, track the warhead as it arcs high above the earth, and shoot it down with an interceptor rocket before it can strike its target.
The US says the evolving missile defence system is primarily aimed at North Korea, which recently defied a United Nations Security Council ban by testing a long-range missile. US and South Korean analysis of the latest launch suggests that with further development and testing the missile will be able to reach the continental US within the next few years.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta says he is increasingly worried about the long-range missile the North tested last month. He said it reached as far as the Philippines and could lob a warhead much further. However, there is no evidence North Korea has built a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the missile.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr described the launch as "illegal". With Australia taking its seat on the United Nations Security Council, Carr and his Japanese counterpart agreed to work together on an international response to the North Korean launch when they met in Sydney earlier this month.
China and Russia joined the condemnation of the North Korean missile launch but they strongly oppose the US-led ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, which is part of the Obama administration's move to shift military resources to the Asia-Pacific region to better protect US interests, allies and friendly nations.
Australia signed a BMD framework memorandum of understanding with the US in 2004. US officials have noted that Australia's Air Warfare Destroyer uses the Aegis Combat System and that could be upgraded in future to provide a missile defence capability.
China and Russia say if the US-led sea and land-based missile interception system develops as planned, it could degrade, if not completely neutralise, the mainstay of their existing strategic nuclear weapon force - intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from land and from submarines at sea.
China is "greatly concerned" at the enhanced development of the BMD program, especially the recent increased deployment of the system in the Asia-Pacific area, says Gu Guoliang, director of the Centre for Arms Control and Non-proliferation Studies at the Institute of American Studies in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "If the United States continues its development of the BMD program, China will have to take measures to secure the credibility of its nuclear second-strike capability," he wrote this month.
Most Asian and Western analysts believe China has 240 to 400 nuclear warheads but only about 140 ICBMs (missiles with a range of more than 5500 kilometres) to carry the warheads.
Both China and Russia are building new weapons which they say will counter the US BMD network if it proves effective and develops global reach by 2020. They want to ensure enough of their nuclear-armed missiles would survive a US attack to be able to launch a counter-attack.
The US is expanding missile defence cooperation with two allies in north-east Asia, Japan and South Korea, and may bring a south-east Asian ally, the Philippines, into the network.
Japan's cabinet recently approved a request from the Defence Ministry for an extra US$681 million to upgrade its missile defence system to "cope with a changing security environment". The ministry cited North Korea's missile development and growing activity in the seas and airspace around Japan's territory "by neighbouring countries". This was taken to mean China, which is at loggerheads with Japan over ownership of a group of islands in the East China Sea.
US officials have also been evaluating sites in south-east Asia, particularly the Philippines, for a third X-Band radar to create an arc that would allow America and its regional allies to more accurately track any ballistic missile launches from North Korea, as well as from parts of China. The radars could be networked with mobile missile interceptors deployed on US and Japanese Aegis-equipped warships at sea and with land-based interceptors in the region.
The Aegis system, named after the mythological shield that defended the ancient Greek god, Zeus, ties together space-based and other sensors, computers, displays, launchers and weapons.
The US is deploying BMD systems in Europe and the Middle East which it says are designed to counter Iranian missiles. In response, Russia says it will build more powerful missiles and may resume production of the nuclear missile trains built by the former Soviet Union in the Cold War and dubbed the "vengeance weapon''.
A missile train looks like a standard train and runs along the public rail system. But its disguised carriages and cargo containers could launch several missiles within three minutes of command, each carrying up to 10 separate warheads with ranges of 10,000 kilometres.
Russia's Defence Ministry also said last month it would start building hypersonic interceptor missiles in the next few years for its own expanded BMD system.
A 2010 Pentagon BMD report said the US network, which includes ground-based rockets on US soil intended to intercept long-range missiles coming from the west from North Korea, could not cope with large-scale Russian or Chinese missile attacks and was not intended to affect the strategic balance with those countries.
Clearly, neither Russia nor China accept US assurances, or they are using America's BMD plans as a convenient pretext to do what they were going to do anyway. In either case, a new and destabilising nuclear arms race is under way.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore