China's Alarming, Puzzling, Missile Test
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

China's Alarming, Puzzling, Missile Test


‘The test has achieved the expected objective,’ Xinhua proclaimed. ‘The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.’

It was a seemingly impressive accomplishment–and apparently a big surprise to Western governments. To date, just one nation has managed to fire one missile to intercept another outside Earth’s atmosphere: the United States. And that was after some 20 years of concerted technology development. Today the United States spends around $10 billion a year developing and buying missile-defense equipment, yet has hit another missile in exo-atmospheric tests on just a handful of occasions. The Chinese test seemed to represent a huge step towards eliminating the US lead.

It’s unclear, however, how realistic the Chinese test was and how advanced the Chinese missile-defense technology truly is. It’s equally unclear what exactly the Chinese missile interceptor is for.

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These uncertainties are not unusual. The whole field of missiles and missile defense is notorious for its political theater. Nations will fund, buy or just plan for ballistic missiles and ballistic-missile defenses–however technically troubled or operationally impractical–solely for posturing. ‘These things tend to be tools of international politics,’ says Phil Coyle, an expert in missiles and missile defenses.

By firing just a handful of ballistic missiles, Iraq was nearly able to draw Israel into the 1991 Gulf War, which could have shattered the Western-Arab alliance arrayed against Iraq. North Korea, Iran and China all field ballistic missiles to back up their rhetoric towards South Korea, Israel and Taiwan, respectively. By the same token, systems that promise to render impotent these politically-empowering ballistic missiles carry much of the same weight in the halls of diplomacy and at the bargaining table.

For that reason, missile defenses are also big business. The US arms industry earns billions of dollars a year exporting various command systems, radars, launchers and interceptors associated with missile defense. In one of the biggest recent deals, last autumn Turkey announced plans to spend $8 billion on US-made PAC-3 missile interceptors.

States ringing heavily missile-armed nations are the best customers. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia all have bought PAC-3 interceptors, owing to Iran’s growing missile force. South Korea bought PAC-3s and sea-based SM-2s, and Japan bought PAC-3s and seaborne SM-3s, both to contend with North Korea. Taiwan is buying PAC-3s to defend against China.

Was the Chinese test for real? Is the system meant to boost Beijing’s position as it jockeys for influence over Taiwan? Was the point to send a signal to some other strategic rival–the United States perhaps, or India? Is the interceptor meant for export as part of a burgeoning commercial arms catalogue?

‘The bottom line is that people don’t know for sure what’s motivating this,’ says Michael Swaine, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. And considering how the Americans have been working on their own missile defenses, good answers regarding the Chinese system could be years in coming. Just one thing is certain: whatever their operational reality, whatever the rationale behind their development, missile defenses represent an important and growing concern for the whole world and in particular, Asia.

Taiwan Theater

Every move by the Chinese defense establishment must be understood in the context of Taiwan. ‘The Taiwan question, bearing upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, has always been the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations,’ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said in January.

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