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China-US relations

How mistrust is fuelling a missile arms race between China and the US

The two nations must discuss their anxieties over each other’s increasingly sophisticated weaponry or risk further ratcheting up tensions, writes Ankit Panda

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 6:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 11:07pm

Within the space of a week, the United States and China have tested similar ballistic missile defence systems.

The US Missile Defence Agency, with little publicity, tested a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA variant interceptor at the end of January. The test reportedly failed – the second failure of that interceptor type in a year.

Days later, China reportedly test fired a Dong Neng-3 (DN-3) interceptor from its Korla test site, intercepting a Dong Feng-21 missile over Chinese territory successfully. The Chinese test also came shortly after India carried out the fifth known test of its Agni-V intermediate-range ballistic missile.

China’s indigenous ballistic missile defence capabilities are advancing at breakneck speed.

The fundamental technology Beijing has repeatedly showed with systems like the DN-3 is similar to what the US is endeavouring to accomplish with the SM-3 as well as other systems.

China carries out anti-missile test amid tension over North Korea’s nuclear programme

Both are so-called ‘hit-to-kill’ systems. They use sheer physical force to collide with and annihilate their targets instead of any explosives. It is far from a simple task, hence the commonly heard comparisons of this form of missile defence with the challenge of hitting one bullet with another.

Beyond their similarities as ‘hit-to-kill’ systems, the SM-3 and the DN-3 are designed to destroy targets outside of the earth’s atmosphere. For a ballistic missile target, both missiles are designed to destroy targets during the so-called mid-course phase of flight. After its engines have burned out, the separated re-entry vehicle is on a ballistic trajectory toward its target.

In the United States, Chinese progress in this area has spilled over into concerns about a prospective anti-satellite capability – and not without good reason. China drew international condemnation in 2007 for using an SC-19 mid-course interceptor to destroy one of its own weather satellites, causing a harmful cloud of debris in space.

In these sorts of direct ascent manoeuvres, systems like the DN-3, the SC-19, and the larger DN-2 can hold US intelligence and surveillance satellites at risk, provided that they pass over Chinese territory. In a conflict, China could hamper the US military’s ability to sustain operations by destroying critical space-based assets using these systems.

China fires up advanced hypersonic missile challenge to US defences

Today, ballistic missile defence developments in both countries are a source of great mistrust. In Beijing, there remains concern that the United States is attempting to contain China with a network of ballistic missile defence systems.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea, which is aimed at defending against North Korean missiles, swept the headlines in 2016 and 2017, but Chinese strategists are equally concerned about Japan’s exploration of the Aegis Ashore system.

Chinese concerns have less to do with antisatellite capabilities of US mid-course interceptors and more with the United States using a network of East Asia-based radar sensors to enhance its ability to intercept the missiles that form China’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Beijing’s nuclear strategy is based around a limited nuclear arsenal and a declaratory policy of no first-use. Its nuclear weapons are designed to be available after surviving an enemy’s first strike and offering assured retaliation.

Fears that US ballistic missile defence may render that retaliation ineffective can thus be destabilising. China’s concerns about US networked missile defence in East Asia is overstated, but nevertheless genuine.

Missile row casts long shadow as South Korea tries to reboot relations with China

Amid all this, the Trump administration is on the cusp of releasing its Missile Defence Review – a document that will come following a record high budget request by the US Missile Defence Agency.

To reduce mutual mistrust and avert the possibility of a spiralling arms race, the United States and China should enter frank discussions on their intentions. The United States had invited China to technical talks around THAAD in 2016, which Beijing rejected. One hopes that there will be another opportunity for the two sides to understand each other’s insecurities.

Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat