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Chinese Ballistic Missile Defense

Although China has been critical of American ballistic missile defense efforts, prior to around 2010 there was very little discussion of Chinese missile defense programs. As China’s answer to the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) announcement on 23 March 1983, the 863 Program “advanced defense” focus area included direct ascent ASAT and missile defense interceptor programs (specifically 863-409). Other focus areas within the 863-4XX series include high power laser and high powered microwave.

China expressed firm opposition to American missile defense. The continued development of US ballistic missile defense systems could lead to increases in the quantity of China's ballistic missiles and development of countermeasures, though it was at this point premature to make those decisions. China needed reassurances about the scale of the US planned missile defense network and the technology that would be used for missile defense in Asia so that China could be confident of its counterattack capabilities.

The PRC released the following statement about BMD in the western Pacific in its 2002 White Paper on National Defense: "China is concerned about certain countries’ joint research and development of theater missile defense (TMD) systems with a view to their deployment in the Northeast Asian region. This will lead to the proliferation of advanced missile technology and be detrimental to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. China resolutely opposes any country which provides Taiwan with TMD assistance or protection in any form."

The white paper China's National Defense in 2010 stated "China maintains that the global missile defense program will be detrimental to international strategic balance and stability, will undermine international and regional security, and will have a negative impact on the process of nuclear disarmament. China holds that no state should deploy overseas missile defense systems that have strategic missile defense capabilities or potential, or engage in any such international collaboration."

The fifth annual session of the U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue was held in Honolulu, HI from May 2 to 4, 2010. The Dialogue is a track II conference; thus, it is formally unofficial, but includes a mix of government and academic participants. The Dialogue is organized by the Naval Postgraduate School and Pacific Forum CSIS and is funded and guided by the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

In January 2010, China reportedly conducted a successful high-altitude anti-ballistic missile test. However, the details of this test and the strategy behind such a system were not well understood by most Chinese. The Chinese side discussed its BMD test, but experts admitted that they had little specific data on BMD, which was a very sensitive issue within China.

Chinese experts offered a range of potential explanations for China’s BMD test and roles for a BMD system. One participant argued that China’s BMD system was not part of a larger move to develop space capabilities or weaponize space. On the contrary, this expert argued that bilateral interactions with the U.S. were sufficient to explain China’s motivations to develop such a system. Chinese participants cited articles by WU Tianfu and SHEN Dingli, which explained the BMD test as a response to American BMD systems. They argued that although China would prefer to live in a world without missile defenses, developments in U.S. BMD systems forced China to defend itself by developing its own BMD system.

The logic of how a Chinese BMD system would reduce its vulnerability was not spelled out clearly, but Chinese experts suggested that this was the most widely accepted explanation for the Chinese test and BMD program. The Chinese side also suggested that one of the major changes in recent years was that Chinese officials and researchers have accepted that missile defense cannot be stopped, and the BMD program is an attempt to make the best of that situation.

Chinese experts offered a few other potential factors that might have led China to conduct the test and develop the BMD program. One expert suggested that many within China believed that the rest of the region and world would accept this as a reasonable defense requirement, and there was a broader sense that the international community wanted to accommodate China rather than challenge it. Another participant also noted that there was no international or domestic law that prohibited China from conducting such a test. Other Chinese participants mentioned the importance of prestige and demonstrating to the world that it had such a capability. An American expert speculated that one reasonable factor for China to develop a BMD capability might be to defend itself against Indian nuclear weapons, but none of the Chinese participants directly engaged this point.

How a BMD system might be deployed was not clear, but Chinese participants were unanimous in their view that a BMD system would not change China’s nuclear doctrine or affect its own No First Use [NFU] pledge. Several Chinese participants suggested that China would not only continue its focus on defensive nuclear counter-attack, but that a BMD system would enhance the survivability of Chinese nuclear weapons, and therefore make NFU even more credible. The development of a BMD system, however, would not mean that China should not continue improving its own nuclear capabilities. Even with its own BMD system, effective deterrence would still rest on China’s ability to reliably penetrate the other side’s missile defenses, so U.S. BMD could still affect the size of China’s nuclear forces.

One Chinese participant also argued that Chinese experts have recognized that BMD is very expensive, so it may only serve a limited role in China’s future military modernization. The participant further argued that cruise missiles and other offensive weapons might prove more cost effective. Chinese participants did not address questions on the relationship between the BMD test or program and China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) capability.

China is planning to develop a sea-based missile defense launcher after completing a successful intercept of a ballistic missile in space from a ground-based system in February 2018, according to the South China Morning Post. "China's sea-based anti-missile system aims to defend both its territory and overseas interests, because sea-based defense systems will be set up wherever its warships can go," analyst Song Zhongping said Tuesday, adding that "the first area it will target is the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean to protect its overseas interests."

Zhou Chenming, another analyst, told SCMP the developments are meant to show North Korea it is a relatively small nuclear power. The most recent missile interception occurred at a time when Pyongyang is gaining a stronger grip on how to launch nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles. Further, the Indian military tested an Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile in mid-January with sufficient range to reach anywhere in China.

However, Beijing may not have the capability to intercept US ICBMs yet. "China's mid-course anti-missile system is powerful enough to shoot down missiles from North Korea and India, though it's not clear whether it could intercept an ICBM from the US if they start firing at each other," Zhou told SCMP.




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