Spears and Shields: China's 11 January missile defence test

Beijing's recent missile test was a prelude to rising US-Chinese tensions over Taiwan - and will re-ignite the strategic debate on space warfare.

By Alexander Neill, Head, Asia Programme

China's resolve to confront the United States over Taiwan's defence was showcased on 11 January 2009 with a successful missile interception test by the People's Liberation Army. China's official news agency issued a short statement confirming the successful test, explaining that it was 'defensive in nature and not targeted at any country'.  The US Department of Defense confirmed that it had detected an 'exo-atmospheric collision' and was seeking an explanation from Beijing.

A well-scripted test

This demonstration of technical prowess by China should have come as no surprise for the Pentagon. What was surprising was the well-scripted, joined-up government response China has choreographed, in comparison to the silent confusion in Beijing after the PLA's Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.

The missile test was carefully timed to coincide with the announcement by the US government on 7 January confirming that Lockheed Martin had been awarded a contract to supply Patriot missile systems to Taiwan. Totalling one billion dollars, the Patriot deal is part of a $6.5 billion arms package agreed by the last US administration in October 2008.

China launched a campaign of official severe displeasure one month ago, protesting in the strongest of terms the further arming of Taiwan by the US. The missile test should also be interpreted within the broader context of current strains in US-China relations: Obama is due to meet the Dalai Lama, and US congressmen will meet Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou on US soil at the end of January.

Marked progress in missile defence

The missile test also demonstrates that China's ASAT and missile defence programme has continued unabated with marked progress since China obliterated one of its own ageing satellites in orbit three years ago. 

While the test will generate acrimony in Washington over the transparency of China's defence policy and expenditure, the biggest question will be how to respond to China's rapid development of a sophisticated home-grown missile defence system. The argument between China and the US over the use of space for warfare will be re-ignited and it will also prompt the White House to clarify the US position on the use of space for offensive purposes.

China firmly opposes the weaponisation of the space domain while remaining at odds with many countries over territorial sovereignty in space. The United States conversely, is clear on its position over the sovereign use of space but remains vague on its intentions to deploy weapons systems there.

Further confrontation possible

The United States may attempt its own show of force by testing elements of the Ballistic Missile Defence network, but this option may be tempered by President Obama's departure from more assertive plans for the system. China's leaders are irritated by Obama's decision to reverse plans for BMD deployments in Eastern Europe, while augmenting US capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

This irritation may also give rise to further confrontation in the South China Sea between the US and Chinese navies. Calls for tentative moves towards military confidence-building measures across the Taiwan Straits will also have lost some of their vigour, reflected in recent acerbic criticism of China by Admiral Robert F. Willard, head of the United States Pacific Command.

The Taiwan question

China has clearly drawn a line between the remarkable economic rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing and any political progress leading to military de-escalation across the straits. This may be linked to Hu Jintao's desire not be seen to bow to US containment of China in the eyes of Chinese Communist Party conservatives.

With a campaign aimed at party loyalty within China's military underway, the nascent military dialogue between the US and China may be put on hold for a number of months. In terms of party legitimacy and Hu's personal legacy over the Taiwan question, two years remain for Hu to achieve some kind of milestone before China's next leadership succession.

Crucial to the US reaction will be the preservation of a new triangular dynamic between Taipei, Beijing and Washington, which evolved after the elections of Presidents Obama and Ma. Taipei's national security strategists have to play a fine line between engagement with China and the maintenance of the special relationship with the US.  This is linked both to economic interdependence across the Taiwan Straits on the approach to the signing of an economic free trade agreement (ECFA) and to the trans-Pacific relationship in the wake of the global recession.

The Chinese term maodun (spear and shield) is used to describe a contradiction or a dispute for which a solution appears intractable. Its idiomatic use originates with a classical Chinese story concerning the integrity of a purveyor of both spears which could penetrate any known shield and shields which could resist any known penetration. If an arms race in space is to be avoided between China and the US and hope of a cross-straits peace accord can remain alive, the January 11 test demonstrates there is a long way to go before this maodun is resolved.


Alexander Neill

Senior Research Fellow, Asia Studies

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