China vents anger with missile test
By Peter J Brown
China has conducted a successful "defensive" anti-missile test with the intent
of sending the United States a stern message of disapproval over Washington's
latest arms sales to Taiwan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu described the January 11 event as
a test of "ground-based midcourse missile interception technology" conducted
"within its territory". It was defensive in nature and targeted at no country,
The test "is just a game about the US sales of weapons to Taiwan; about the
non-proliferation of missiles; and about the
prevention of an arms race in outer space between the US and China." according
to Li Shouping, professor in international law at the School of Law of Beijing
Institute of Technology and director of the Institute of Space Law.
The test was a direct response to the US Department of Defense decision on
January 6 to sell weapons, including the Patriot III anti-missile system, to
Taiwan, Li said in a commentary at the Res Communis web site . Since the
sale would integrate Taiwan into the Theater Missile Defense System (TMD) of
the US, the Chinese government thought it harmed the sovereignty of China and
violated the principle in international law, he wrote. Li declined to respond
to questions from Asia Times Online.
Professor Tan Kaijia, of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) National Defense
University told Xinhua news agency "If the ballistic missile is regarded as a
spear, now we have succeeded in building a shield for self-defense."
The test was conducted within China's territory, "so the missile that
intercepted the incoming target would not fly or [fall into] another country's
territory, China had no obligation to declare the missile test, but doing so
revealed that the military was becoming more transparent," Tan said.
Many missile experts contend that what China really carried out was a test of
anti-satellite capabilities without actually shooting down a satellite.
"We still do not know exactly what happened, but it the current hypothesis is
that China tested the same system that it used to destroy a satellite in 2007,
this time in an anti-ballistic missile mode. The technology is essentially the
same," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and
Non-proliferation Initiative at the Washington DC-based New America Foundation.
Brian Weeden, technical advisor with the Colorado-based Secure World
Foundation, says that while none of the objectives for the test are "apparent
due to the opaqueness of the PRC [People's Republic of China] decision-making
process," the ultimate objective of the test was as a strategic communication
to the US.
"First, the timing of the test - exactly three years after the successful 2007
Chinese ASAT [anti-satellite weapon] test - indicates that whatever motivated
China to do the ASAT test has not gone away," said Weeden. "Some have argued
that the Chinese ASAT test was an attempt to push the US towards serious
negotiations on a space weapons treaty in the Conference on Disarmament. Others
have argued that it was a demonstration of Chinese capability to disrupt and
degrade US space capabilities in the event of a Taiwan Strait conflict.
Whatever the real reason or reasons were, it can be said that they still
China implemented a significant change in the way it communicated this most
recent test to the public which indicates that they learned a great deal from
the strategic communications failure that took place after the 2007 ASAT test,
according to Weeden. "It has gone way beyond the stoic silence displayed in
2007," he said.
"An objective [in 2010] for China was to see if it could carry out this sort of
coordinated communications strategy and what sort of geopolitical response it
would engender," said Weeden. "A large part of this learning came from watching
how the US did strategic communications for the 2008 destruction of USA 193.
While the USA 193 destruction was in fact a test of an anti-satellite system,
the US went to extraordinary lengths to communicate that it was no such thing
and that it was all about public safety. The US was also ahead of the curve,
bringing the issue to the public spotlight itself with a coordinated
This test also enabled China to communicate that it too can develop an ASAT
capability as a side effect of working on kinetic kill missile defense
"This just further cements the fact that hit-to-kill technologies for both
missile defense and ASAT are really the same capability. However, in the
current geopolitical climate testing a hit-to-kill missile defense system is
politically acceptable while testing a hit-to-kill ASAT system is not," said
It has long been US policy to continue to develop technology for anti-satellite
weapons while not actually building an operational system. This "hedging"
strategy was seen as a way for the US to publicly state it opposed weapons in
space while still having an option to deploy them.
"This Chinese test and the recent Indian announcement both indicate the flaw in
that strategy: it allows other states to use the same policy to develop weapon
systems that pose a threat to US space capabilities," said Weeden. "This flaw
is not new, in fact it has been pointed out by arms control advocates for
decades. But this flaw was derided by the missile defense and space weapons
advocates in the US as overblown."
While the US Department of Defense complained it was not notified, the US was
well aware the test was about to take place. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
admitted that the US had not been caught by surprise and dismissed the theory
that China carried out the test in order to send the US a message over Taiwan.
"We have followed the Chinese development of aerospace capacity for quite some
time, and this had been foreshadowed some weeks ago," said Clinton.
Since the November PLA Air Force [PLAAF] anniversary celebration, officials
have stated that missile defense is part of the PLAAF's new doctrine of
"integrated air-space offense and defense".
"It is possible that this service eventually will control not just a
ground-based strategic anti-ballistic missle [ABM] force, but also laser-armed
large aircraft capable of anti-satellite strikes, and a range of unmanned or
manned space platforms to attack deeper space targets, like US DPS early
warning satellites," said Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington,
DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Fisher asserts that the Chinese Communist Party and PLA leadership purposefully
engages in political intimidation and the not-so-subtle transmission of
deterrent messages during all of its military activities, including this
"But what is important for Japan and other US allies is that China's
combination of its building a larger and more capable nuclear delivery force
with the fielding of an increasingly capable missile defense force, will more
rapidly undermine the extended US nuclear deterrent that undergirds strategic
stability in Asia," he said. "Absent an overwhelming nuclear deterrent, US
non-nuclear forces in Asia become as much liabilities as assets."
Fisher sees broad and unwelcome implications in the test and warns about what
is unfolding in the region as a whole. Should China elect to arm its new land
and sea-based nuclear missiles with multiple warheads, it could easily achieve
warhead numbers approaching the 500 to 1,000 that the Obama administration is
reportedly considering as a second round of nuclear reductions with Russia.
"The likelihood that China could combine such a nuclear force with an ABM
system means that Japan, South Korea, Australia and others are facing the
surreal in 2010. If the Barack Obama administration remains committed to deep
US warhead reductions then PLA missiles defenses will erase the viability of
extended US nuclear deterrent commitments twice as fast," said Fisher.
According to Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager for the
Global Security Program under the Union of Concerned Scientists, as US
officials prepare the new US Space Posture Review to update US national
security space policy and strategy, China's test this month will be closely
"[It] will drive home the importance of talking to China about missile defense
and [anti-satellite] technologies before China completes the development of
these interceptors and moves towards deployment," Kulacki told the Associated
Dean Cheng, research fellow at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation's
Asian Studies Center, stated recently, "It would seem that Chinese concerns
about US missile defense developments are more a reflection of concerns about
being outpaced by American technological capability than foregoing a
capability. Moreover, like the ASAT test, the anti-missile test reflects a
steady, ongoing program that has reached a development milestone suitable for
testing systems." 
Cheng considers the test "a potential diplomatic opportunity for the US" and
recommends "the US should make it clear that it will not object to the
development and deployment of missile defense systems by China if China also
adopts (a) broader defensive, non-threatening posture. It might signal this
through, for example, a reduction in the number of missiles aimed at Taiwan as
proposed by President Ma Ying-jeou."
Cheng also sees danger in what lies ahead: "On the other hand, Chinese interest
in anti-missile systems should give pause to [US] efforts at eliminating global
nuclear arms, because the Chinese continue to pursue a nuclear modernization
program. If such a goal were to be seriously pursued, then at some point, the
level of US nuclear forces would decline to such an extent that even a
moderately effective anti-missile system could seriously affect deterrence and
advance China's position to threaten others. Beijing, it would seem, is
responding in deeds to the president's [Barack Obama's] words.
While it has not yet been confirmed that China used a mobile launch system to
conduct its test, should that prove the case, it represents a very significant
"If a mobile launcher was used, it is certainly important since pre-launch
targeting would be nearly impossible if this technology was used for missile
defense or anti-satellite purposes," said Eric Hagt, China program director at
the Washington, DC-based World Security Institute.
Among other things, this mobile defense capability would make US surveillance
satellites increasingly vulnerable on flight paths over China.
"[It means that China's anti-missile systems are] not fixed targets that we
could identify and either have our satellites avoid flying over or take
measures before coming into the threat envelope," said Weeden of the Secure
In terms of missile defense, "If you are protecting against [inbound missiles]
that are only covering several hundred kilometers, it is beneficial to be able
to move your interceptors into the right position depending on which country
you think the threat is coming from," said Weeden. "From China's perspective,
if it was building a system to potentially defend against an Indian or Russian
short to medium range ballistic missile attack, mobile interceptors could be
If China's ICBMs and ABMs can be placed in concealed underground bases and
rapidly deployed for attack and defense missions, it severely reduces the
response time of the opposing national command authority, according to the
International Assessment and Strategy Center's Fisher.
"China's development of a large number of 'HQ-19' ABMs may signal that China's
heretofore 'defensive' and 'retaliatory' nuclear doctrine has evolved to
include a range of offensive nuclear attack operations," said Fisher. "The
implication of such a PLA evolution is that in order to deter China and meet
other security requirements, the US and Russia may require a much higher
nuclear warhead inventory than the Obama administration may seeking as part of
a second round of nuclear weapons reductions."
Beyond that, Fisher sees a much grander strategy unfolding in outer space.
"It should also be expected that the PLA will soon build on China's early
Chang'e unmanned moon missions by placing a range of unmanned sensors or even
weapons on the moon to better enable attacks against US deep space assets,"
That may seem a bit far-fetched to many readers.
However, China is not backing off, while the US is intent on maintaining the
security of Taiwan. Tensions are not going to subside especially when China is
so determined to build increasingly sophisticated weapons systems to counter
the US in particular.
Is China's anti-missile system as good or as reliable as the systems now
deployed by the US - both on land and at sea? Probably not, but it is a
significant development nonetheless. China wants the world to know that this is
an impressive achievement, and that there will be many more in the years to