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, she said.
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 apply.”
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 communications strategy.”
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 interceptors.
“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 Weeden.
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 month’s test.
“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 scrutinized.
“[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 Press.
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 dimension.
“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 World Foundation.
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 useful.”
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,” said Fisher.
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 come.
1. See The Chinese Test on Ground-based Midcourse Missile Interception Technology A Game Between China and the United States
2. For a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the test, clich here.
3. To view the comments, click here.
Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist from the US state of Maine.