Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Alarming, Puzzling, Missile Test

On January 11, a large missile streaked upward from a test site in China. The missile rocketed beyond the atmosphere and struck another similar missile launched from a separate site. Later that day, the official Xinhua news agency announced a ‘test on ground-based midcourse missile interception technology.’

‘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.

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.

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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.

Observers were quick to point out that the Chinese missile test came just days after Washington announced a $1-billion PAC-3 sale to Taiwan. One theory is that China simply insists on having all the same military capabilities as Taiwan, if not better. Since PAC-3 is a point defense against only smaller ballistic missiles flying in the atmosphere, the Chinese demonstration of a heavy, exo-atmospheric interceptor could be the trump card in a game of military one-upmanship.

Swaine is skeptical. The Chinese interceptor test ‘doesn’t seem tied to the Taiwanese PAC-3,’ Swaine says. That both rivals made big missile moves at the same time is coincidence, he insists. ‘This test has been in making for some time. It’s pretty silly to think they pulled it out of their pocket … right after the sale of PAC-3 to the Taiwanese.’

Besides, China doesn’t really need a missile-interceptor in order to contend with the Taiwanese military. Taiwan doesn’t possess ballistic missiles for land bombardment. In the cross-strait balance, it’s China that has all the land-attack missiles–hundreds of them, arrayed along the southern Chinese coast, all within range of Taiwanese bases. Taiwan’s posture is defensive, not offensive. For Taipei, buying PAC-3 makes sense: the island nation needs missile interceptors to protect its airfields and garrisons. But Beijing doesn’t need systems to defend against Taiwan, for Taiwan has no way of striking the Chinese mainland.

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Still, there could be a connection to the cross-strait standoff. Taiwan’s defense always has hinged, and still does, on the presence of US forces in the Pacific. Despite the United States’ increasingly close relationship with China, the Pentagon is committed to an independent Taiwan. In 1996, two US Navy aircraft carriers steamed into the Taiwan Strait amid increasing tensions between China and Taiwan.

At present, the US does not operate non-nuclear ballistic missiles. But such a missile is in development. The so-called Conventional Strike Missile emerged in the early 2000s as a potential complement to US long-range bombers. Development got sidelined by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the change in presidential administrations in early 2009. But last year the Barack Obama administration revived the idea of putting conventional explosive warheads on long-range ballistic missiles. Such a system would be useful for striking Chinese targets in any shooting war over Taiwan.

The United States famously deployed heavy, exo-atmospheric missile interceptors in Alaska beginning in 2004, in order to deter and defend against missiles fired by North Korea. In the same way, maybe Beijing is trying to head off the US Conventional Strike Missile deployment with its own missile defenses.

India Deterrent or Sat Killer?

It’s also possible China is developing missile defenses to tweak the balance of power between it and neighboring India. Both nations have nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. While not outwardly hostile, Beijing and New Delhi eye each other cautiously as they both grow into global powers.

But again, Swaine has his doubts. ‘If the Chinese system is designed against a strategic threat such as India, it’s a pretty poor investment on the part of the Chinese.’ After all, India has as many as 80 nukes and could fire them all at the same time, easily overwhelming any defense. Missile defenses ‘are not a very cost-effective way of dealing with a strategic threat from a potential adversary,’ Swaine says. ‘It’s better to deal with the Indian threat through a retaliatory capability.’ Which, it should be noted, Beijing already possesses.

On the other hand, defenses could be useful against a rival with just a handful of nuclear weapons–say, one of the so-called rogue states. ‘The Chinese may feel the situation in North Korea could get so out of control that the North Koreans might use ballistic missiles against the Chinese,’ Swaine suggests. ‘I hasten to add that I don’t share this view.’

Coyle says he was ‘impressed’ when he read details of the Chinese test. Military analyst John Pike, from the think tank Globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia, was not. He says the tests were all about ‘bragging rights.’ ‘Anything the Americans can do,

the “Chicoms” can do better,’ Pike imagined Chinese officials thinking.

Swaine appears to concur. ‘The test as I understand it was extremely scripted, even more than US anti-ballistic-missile tests. Apparently the target time and location was communicated to the interceptor. You may excuse that as early-phase testing, but some people have concluded that this system in its current form isn’t really suited to the anti-ballistic-missile mission.’

The Chinese system could, however, be used against slow, predictable targets–say, US satellites. In 2007, the Chinese military launched a missile to destroy a derelict satellite in a highly scripted test of a rudimentary anti-satellite capability. This year’s test could represent a continuation of those efforts, Swaine says. Beijing has long sought what the Pentagon calls ‘asymmetric’ military capabilities meant to strike at key American vulnerabilities in its communications and surveillance infrastructure.

As a legitimate missile defense, or a sat-killer, the Chinese interceptor could make for a valuable export item, Coyle says. Ironically, customers could include US allies worried about Iranian or North Korean missiles, which allegedly have Chinese components. Not that it’s unheard of for a nation to sell weapons to all sides in an international rivalry. Several years ago, Washington offered F-35 stealth fighters to Israel. In January, Lockheed Martin, the company that makes the F-35, said the Israeli sale would probably force Israel’s Arab neighbors to buy F-35s, too.

‘I don’t know what China’s purpose or motives were for the test,’ Coyle says, an uncertainty that places him in good company.

Swaine, for his part, says even the Chinese might have only the vaguest notion of what their new missile defense is for. ‘Absent any proof, one could say it’s a prudent effort to develop technology that could be applied in several different areas,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s part of a longer-term project to develop technology, the uses for which … no clear decision has been made about.’

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