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China’s Missile Defence Test: Yet Another Milestone?

February 1, 2010

On January 11, 2007, China shocked the world by conducting an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. On January 11, 2010, they did it again, this time, with a missile defence test. On January 11, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that China had conducted a test of a ground-based midcourse missile interception technology within its territory. She added, “The test has achieved the expected objective. The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.”1 In order to substantiate the public support for the tests, Xinhua News brought out a web survey from Global Times (China) that showed that about 98.8 per cent voters supported China’s self-developed anti-missile system, with only 0.4 per cent voting against it.2 In fact, Global Times cited senior military strategist Yang Chengjun saying that “China needs an improved capability and more means of military defence as the country faces increasing security threats.”3 Jin Canrong of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, in an interview with the Global Times, noted that China has always followed a defensive strategy and that the missile defence test has not changed that strategy, but only “reinforced” it.4

China’s missile defence test has come against the backdrop of the US sale of weapons to Taiwan, including PAC-3 air defence missiles.5 US weapon sales to Taiwan in turn are driven by the confrontation across the Taiwan Straits, and the 1,300 ballistic missile stationed by Beijing in its missile brigades opposite Taiwan. Beijing had repeatedly raised objections to the weapons sales and asked Washington to cancel the deal. The Chinese Defence Ministry warned over the weekend that it reserved the right to take unspecified action if Washington followed through with the sale, which it called a ‘severe obstacle’ to China-US military ties.6 However, the tests cannot be seen as a response to US weapon sales alone because the decision to test was not an overnight one. The test was rather a display of the rising profile of Chinese PLA and its increasing technological prowess.

What was particularly striking was the way China managed post-test reactions from around the world. Unlike in January 2007 when China conducted the ASAT test,7 this time around, the Chinese foreign ministry was most forthcoming in announcing that China has conducted such a test and that the test would “neither produce space debris in orbit nor pose a threat to the safety of orbiting spacecraft.”8 However, reading the statement carefully, nothing much has been actually said in terms of the purpose of the test or details of interceptors and so on. In the absence of any concrete information coming from Chinese government sources, one has to rely on the writings of some of the well-known China-watchers who note that it may have been the same sort of interceptor as used in the 2007 ASAT test. Based on a particular image (file photo) on Xinhua News, several commentators agreed that it was the air defence missile, HQ-9.9 However, there were several other pictures (file photos) available on the Xinhua News, and one of the posts by Jeffrey G. Lewis on the blog ArmsControlWonk suggests that it could have been a HQ-9, or a HQ-12 or even a DF-21C.10

The Chinese appear to have used essentially the same technology as in the ASAT test – “hit-to-kill” technologies. The missile defence test is seen as an expansion of its ASAT technology. In the case of India, it has been the reverse – the anti-ballistic missile programme (ABM) is believed to have been expanded to include anti-satellite programmes. China appears to have focused on the development of kinetic energy interceptors for this purpose.

In the absence of any substantial information available from Chinese officialdom, it is hard to derive firm conclusions. However, one can draw out a few implications of the test. For one, this will sharpen the security dilemma that already exists in Asia. China’s missile defence test could possibly up the ante in the region, with other regional powers considering measures in reaction. India had already announced that its ABM programme will be expanded to include anti-satellite programmes (a reaction that came about post-Chinese ASAT test). In addition, these technologies are becoming more popular and could spread widely around the world if no global mechanism is established to control them. One possibility is the spread of these technologies from China to possibly Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, which would exacerbate regional crises.

  1. 1. “China Conducts Test on Ground-based Midcourse Missile Interception,” Xinhua News, January 11, 2010, available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2010-01/11/content_12792329.htm
  2. 2. “China Reaffirms that Its Missile Interception Test Defensive,” Xinhua News, January 12, 2010, available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2010-01/12/content_12797459.htm.
  3. 3. “China Successfully Tests Missile Defence System,” The Dawn, January 12, 2010, available at http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/world/14-china-says-successfully-tests-missile-defence-system-zj-07.
  4. 4. “China Reaffirms that Its Missile Interception Test Defensive,” Xinhua News, January 12, 2010, available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2010-01/12/content_12797459.htm.
  5. 5. The PAC-3 systems seem to be the last component that a US $6.5 billion weapons deal approved towards the end of the Bush administration’s term. The weapons package from the 2008 deal include: 330 PAC-3 missiles ($ 3.1 b) and the current deal is part of the larger missile package. These systems could possibly provide Taiwan the ability to eliminate short- and medium-range missiles launched from China. See, “US Missile Defense Deal with Taiwan Ok’d,” Global Security Newswire, Nuclear Threat Initiative, January 07, 2010, available at http://gsn.nti.org/gsn/nw_20100107_8249.php.
  6. 6. “China Tests Missile Defence,” The Straits Times, January 12, 2010, available at http:// www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Asia/Story/STIStory_476280.html.
  7. 7. In January 2007, following the ASAT test, there was no announcement or clarification from the Chinese government for about two weeks, until the Aviation Week and Space Technology brought it out. China came under sharp criticism for not informing other governments in advance, dismissing the potential impact on the peaceful use of the space among others.
  8. 8. Jeffrey G. Lewis, “Chinese Missile Defense Test,” ArmsControlWonk.com, January 12, 2010, available at http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2588/chinese-missile-defense-test.
  9. 9. Reports suggest that the Russian surface-to-air missiles purchased by China in the 1990s were further improvised to develop their own version of interceptors such as HQ-9, along with a significant number of missile systems with better range and accuracy. Also, media reports in 2006 noted that Beijing had conducted a surface-to-air missile test in the north-west China, which was believed to be similar in specifications and capabilities to that of the US Patriot system. South Korean newspaper, Dong a il bo had reported that the test involved detection and downing of both a reconnaissance drone and an incoming ballistic missile by an interceptor. See, “China Says Missile Defense Test Successful,” Associated Press, azcentral.com, January 11, 2010, available at http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/01/11/20100111china-missile0111.html. In fact, GlobalSecurity notes that HQ-9 may have been developed “based on a Chinese-designed missile motor, search and guidance hardware which in turn is based on the Russian S-300PMU, and guidance technology from the American Patriot. China procured from Russia four to six S-300PMU batteries (48 to 72 missiles) in 1991 and purchased an additional 120 missiles in 1994.” Additionally, there were reports that in 1993 Israel had transferred a Patriot missile or missile technology to China, although Israel has denied those reports. Further, in 1997, the US Office of Naval Intelligence suggested that “technology from advanced Western systems may be incorporated into the HQ-9.” See, “HQ-9,” GlobalSecurity, available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/hq-9.htm
  10. 10. Jeffrey G. Lewis, “Chinese Missile Defense Test,” ArmsControlWonk.com, January 12, 2010, available at http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/2588/chinese-missile-defense-test.

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Missile re-routing by Lakshmi Narayanan - NIMHANS