China’s approach toward ballistic missile defense is shifting. This area has long been regarded as a bastion of U.S.-Russian power politics and nuclear dynamics by Beijing. However, China has recently become a participant rather than an observer with its inclusion, along with Russia, as a dominant factor in the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, and with its ground-based midcourse missile interception test in the same year.

While the United States and Russia are currently in the position to shape the dynamics of the debate, this is bound to change. In this context, it is important that Washington and Moscow take steps toward compromising on ballistic missile defense (BMD) cooperation now as a foundation for effective engagement with Beijing in the future.

Lora Saalman
Saalman was a nonresident associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on China’s nuclear and strategic policies toward India, Russia, and arms control.
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The evolution of Chinese analysis and technology on missile defense-related issues has undergone a significant progression. Attitudes have evolved from criticism of U.S. and Soviet policy, to countermeasures against U.S. BMD, and ultimately to conforming through China’s development of its own BMD capabilities. The question is how to reach the fourth “c”, comity.

To this end, it is instructive to look at the most recent stage of this evolution. China’s 2010 missile defense test demonstrated the very same technology that it once denounced—much like China’s nuclear test in 1964, and its anti-satellite test in 2007. This continuity offers some valuable insights into three issues often raised when discussing China: transparency, predictability, and engagement.

First, the number of strategic and technical articles on missile defense has increased exponentially within Chinese databases over the past decade, offering some of the greatest transparency available on any given security-related issue.

Second, when unofficial articles are viewed in the context of official actions, China’s technical and strategic communities offer invaluable insights into China’s response pattern.

Third, China’s development of BMD may be just what compels it and the United States to greater exchange. By integrating China into a system of relations from which it was once excluded and threatened, it will be in a much stronger position to engage and to be engaged.

This analysis reviews these three findings and does so with reference to more than 2,000 articles on missile defense in Chinese journals in order to provide recommendations as to how to better engage China on ballistic missile defense.


Despite the permeation of ballistic missile defense into the strategic, space, and conventional realm, early accounts within China link BMD squarely to nuclear concerns and to the U.S.-Soviet power dynamic. Within open sources, these articles range as far back as 1975, when the U.S. and Soviet systems were as nascent as the Chinese consciousness of their utility. The majority of these early articles appear in technical journals and offer a laundry list of missile defense-related capabilities with little in the way of nuances or insights into how China sees itself affected. Nonetheless, there are exceptions.

Early articles referring to both China and missile defense in their titles frequently pair China with Russia, as the two countries most likely to be affected by U.S. ballistic missile defense. Lengthy technical papers released in the mid-to-late 1970s offer insights into a Chinese scientific community with a budding interest in the capabilities underpinning U.S.-Soviet missile defense and strategic missile development. By the 1980s, this dynamic was cemented with the U.S. announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Soviet response.

Despite this early focus on the U.S.-Soviet and later U.S.-Russian power dynamic, these writings are just as revealing about China—whether they mention it or not. From the start, journal articles within China have expressed a strong interest in the Soviet, and later Russian, countermeasures taken to defeat U.S. ballistic missile defense. These analyses were most frequent around the time of the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.

Soviet and Russian countermeasures inform Chinese policy when responding to U.S. ballistic missile defense. On the one hand, studying these countermeasures offers Chinese experts the chance to learn from Russia’s achievements and challenges when facing U.S. technical advances and policies. On the other hand, Chinese analysts remain well aware of the constraints faced by China, as opposed to Russia, particularly in arsenal size. Areas in which Russia was unable to constrain U.S. actions, whether political or technical, are internalized as lessons to be learned by China.

For example, while a few Chinese analysts refer to the Russian political countermeasure of pulling out of the START II treaty two days after U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, far more note that Russia ultimately did not abrogate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and was impotent in constraining U.S. actions. As argued by countless Chinese experts, Russia is the one country able to effectively maintain a “strategic balance” (zhanlue pingheng) when it comes to the United States. So its inability to stem unilateral U.S. withdrawal means that no country can.

Moreover, U.S. President Barack Obama’s previous reassurances to Russia that the latter’s missile forces are significant enough to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses offers little comfort to a country like China with a much more restrained nuclear posture and deployment structure. As a result, after 2002, Russia’s active military countermeasures have received increasing attention within China, including ballistic missile advances and missile defense-related adjustments. If passive countermeasures are not enough, then active capabilities are seen to offer greater leverage.

In addition to Chinese attention paid to Russia’s declaration that it was no longer bound by the START II treaty, thereby allowing it to pursue its PC-18 and PC-20 intercontinental ballistic missiles, there is a strong focus in these writings on nearly every possible related countermeasure and military development within Russia, including space-based missile forces, long-range ICBMs, multiple warhead ballistic missile submarines, SS-27, SS-25, SS-19, guided missile cruisers, PC-22, PC-23, space-based early warning satellites, "Volga" early warning radar station deployment, A-135 missile defense system, S-400 defense systems, low-altitude supersonic cruise missile, X-111 and X-555 long-range cruise missiles, 3M carrier rockets, nuclear submarine, strategic bombers, etc.

In other words, improved ballistic missile systems, nuclear submarines, space-based assets, and a host of both passive and active countermeasures are part and parcel to mounting a coordinated response to the United States. It is, therefore, not surprising that China’s nuclear modernization has included a number of these facets, whether in strategic ballistic missile pursuits or nuclear submarines. These platforms offer a degree of the assured retaliatory capability that Chinese experts have witnessed Russia using as leverage vis-à-vis the United States at strategic arms reductions negotiations and elsewhere.


Overall, China has yet to exhibit the level of strategic expansion required to follow the path of its neighbor to the north. Beijing continues to employ what its analysts frequently refer to as a “restrained” (kezhi) nuclear posture. As part of this discourse, the bulk of Chinese technical articles from 1975 to 2005 were preoccupied with the effects of missile defense and passive countermeasures. These simulations remained trained on the chaff, jamming, spinning, decoys, and other systems necessary to defeat missile defenses, whether space-based laser systems or kinetic energy systems.

From 2002, however, this pattern began to shift. Technological studies of missile defense began to gravitate from more “passive” countermeasures to more “active” ones, with the most notable rise occurring in kinetic energy studies. Experts hailing from a number of first-rate Chinese institutions engaged in this research, including Nanjing University of Chemical Engineering, Second Artillery Engineering College, Missile Institute and Air Force Engineering University in Shaanxi, Northwestern Polytechnic University’s School of Aerospace Engineering, Beijing Institute of Technology, Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, and Yantai Naval Aeronautical Engineering College. In technical and strategic terms, Chinese experts were exploring the means of both countering and mastering missile defense technology.

In its most recent incarnation, the active pursuit of intercept technology has achieved the greatest focus, resulting in 2007 with China’s anti-satellite test and again in 2010 with its anti-ballistic missile test, both of which relied on much of the kinetic energy dynamics and engineering know-how displayed in open sources from 2002. As a technical rationale behind such tests, by possessing similar systems Chinese scientists could be said to be capable of understanding and potentially countering or defeating anti-satellite systems and ballistic missile defenses. The strategic rationale suggests that mastery of such technology and systems ensures greater leverage in negotiating over China’s growing regional security concerns, particularly when it comes to the United States.

To this end, U.S. insistence on the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA)—a missile defense architecture featuring increasingly-capable sea- and land-based missile interceptors—virtually ensures that China will continue to pursue such defenses to diminish U.S. ability to engage in coercion, whether nuclear or otherwise. For while PAA takes Iran and North Korea as its targets, this role receives little attention within China. Instead, the marriage of technical and strategic studies on missile defense in recent years indicates that Chinese experts have begun to integrate their approach. This is a pattern of first learning to defeat and then to compete.

Within a year of the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, technology-specific texts within China began to focus on the systems associated with developing, not simply countering, ballistic missile defense. At a basic level, the fact that the United States would be willing and able to unilaterally abrogate a treaty in the face of opposition from a country with the best chance at constraining U.S. actions set off alarm bells in Beijing. Sacrifice of stability for dominance, particularly nuclear, is referred to throughout Chinese texts as U.S. pursuit of “nuclear hegemony” (he baquan), “absolute security” (juedui anquan), and “absolute advantage” (juedui youshi).

After unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Chinese technical and strategic journals revealed interest in counteracting U.S. missile defense capabilities, such as laser systems, kinetic intercepts, and early warning radars. Such research could be said to be dual-use in that it could be used to counteract and at the same time develop such systems. When taken alongside the kinetic intercept literature that preceded China’s anti-satellite test of 2007, these scientific studies provide a substantive body of work suggesting that China was headed towards developing the capabilities that enabled its anti-ballistic missile test in 2010.

Chinese discourse reflects the belief that the ultimate means of counteracting U.S. ambitions and forestalling political or military coercion is the possession of similar systems. This applied to China’s nuclear weapons test in 1964, its anti-satellite test in 2007, and is no less true in the case of its 2010 missile defense test. This continuity has significant implications as the United States expands the range of its capabilities into such areas as conventional prompt global strike and space weaponry. China will follow.

Beijing may not seek to compete in terms of number with such systems, but at the technological level it will seek to establish and demonstrate competency. As evidence of this, China ultimately chose to demonstrate its missile defense capability. In the case of each of its tests, whether nuclear, anti-satellite, or missile defense, China acted after years of U.S. intransigence. This is the case across such issues as the prevention of an arms race in outer space and ballistic missile defense. Chinese concerns over BMD are not simply about one system, but rather a host of capabilities and space weaponization writ large.

For any number of Chinese experts and articles surveyed, the Obama administration’s ongoing, and some could argue strengthened, commitment to BMD under the Phased Adaptive Approach constitutes both a disappointment and a signal within China that the United States will pursue this system indefinitely. While President Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague and decision to “delay” (tuichi) missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic were initially well received in China, this positive interpretation soon evaporated.

In contrast to largely bipartisan support in the United States for missile defense, when it comes to bilateral Sino-U.S. relations there are few more contentious issues. In the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, missile defense is described as an essential linchpin of moving ahead on nuclear weapons reductions and maintaining U.S. security. In China, it remains an oft-cited obstacle in achieving these very same reductions and greater engagement on strategic stability. Any illusions about a new U.S. ethos on BMD under the Obama administration were further shattered by the 2010 U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) and U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). If a “pro” arms control administration supports BMD, then it is here to stay.

Thus, it should not be a surprise that China would conduct a test in close proximity to the U.S. release of the 2010 BMDR and NPR, both of which reaffirmed U.S. commitment to ballistic missile defense. Similarly, in the aftermath of China’s 2007 ASAT test, a number of Chinese experts argued that this could be seen as an effort to bring the United States back to the negotiating table on the issue of weaponization of outer space. In each of these cases, it is just as likely that technical considerations were greater factors than political ones. Yet, even if these rationalizations within China do not ultimately reflect reality, the assumptions behind Chinese thinking and responses to the United States are crucial.


Perceptions within China on missile defense are not simply based on conjecture. China’s anti-satellite test and anti-ballistic missile test are intimately intertwined with the capabilities and the technical transparency that preceded them. China’s anti-ballistic missile test, much like its ASAT test, could have been anticipated by a review of the similar body of technical and strategic literature preceding it. Technical literature in China has been remarkably more transparent on these tests than is usually recognized in the West. However, there remain some central differences.

First of all, the literature on hit-to-kill technology that preceded China’s 2007 ASAT test is frequently, if not entirely, devoid of references to application or intended use of the systems. This does not hold true, however, in Chinese studies on ballistic missile defense. While there is a great deal of crossover in terms of technical capabilities applied in both anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile endeavors, papers exploring kinetic intercept in the context of ballistic missile defense do not omit the technology’s ultimate use. In other words, reports concentrate on the intended use of the hit-to-kill capability, rather than simply the disembodied technology.

The second point of departure appears in the sharply divergent reaction within China to the two tests. In the immediate aftermath of the 2007 test, Chinese strategic literature remained largely silent, with an occasional citation based on foreign reporting. By contrast, discussion of the 2010 test was much more immediate and in-depth. This involved distinguishing the missile defense test from the ASAT test, by emphasizing its lack of space debris. Chinese analysts also explicitly refer to this test as a “ground-based midcourse missile interception technology test” (luji zhongduan fandao lanjie jishu shiyan), as opposed to a euphemism, such as the term “satellite experiment” (weixing shiyan) used following the ASAT test in 2007. At the political level, connection is even made in BMD-related articles between the two tests to extol China’s ability to conduct a missile defense test within three years of its anti-satellite test.

Third, while differing from the reportage after the ASAT test, the wording on China’s missile defense test is also noteworthy for its similarity to Chinese accounts of its nuclear test. In much the same phraseology, Chinese experts emphasize that it was simply responding to external pressures and stimuli. The tendency in China is to refer to its role as responsive or “passive” (beidong). Chinese official and non-official descriptions of Beijing’s missile defense test as peaceful, defensive, and not directed at any third parties continue a long-standing approach to describing China’s military advances. Some analysts within China illustrate this linkage to traditional Chinese strategic posture by arguing that China’s pledge of no first use makes it the one country among the P-5 countries that “should” (yinggai) have missile defense.

Fourth, with the ASAT test, the nature of follow-on actions and next steps are not yet apparent. Yet, after China’s missile defense test, strategists covering the issue and scientists working on the associated technology have proceeded rapidly. They have debated the details of a deployment timeline, how the next phase will incorporate a warning satellite, as well as the advanced nature of China’s missile defense compared with the U.S. Patriot system. Some even argue that such systems could enable China to enter earlier into nuclear reduction negotiations, enhancing stability by inducing strategic restraint on the part of its adversaries. Thus, even met with the oft-heard counter argument in China that the United States simply “strikes when it wants to strike” (xiang da jiu da), Beijing’s development of BMD is seen as offering it leverage.

Beyond academics and strategists, Chinese scientists have similarly been engaged since the 2010 missile defense test. China’s Journal of the Air Force Radar Academy has issued papers on space-based early warning systems, space-based laser detection and missile destruction, opto-electronic attack and defense, and computer simulations of space based missile defense guidance laws. The Second Artillery has also issued a variety of technical papers on simulations relating to ballistic missile attack and defense technology research. A number of these analyses advocate technology and measures that China has long criticized the United States for undertaking, including development of kinetic energy interceptors and high-energy laser weapons, as well as consideration of regional anti-ballistic missile defense system construction.

These strategic and technical journals, while not necessarily representing concrete planning at the official level, nonetheless demonstrate a concerted body of work on developing the very same systems that Beijing has long condemned in official rhetoric. The fact that these reports were in many cases released following China’s 2010 missile defense test indicates that this is a longer term pursuit, which is likely to result in new systems and potential tests for years to come.


Even with an aversion to becoming a “little Russia” (xiao eluosi), the Chinese inclination to focus on the U.S.-Russia dynamic is an essential factor when anticipating China’s response toward missile defense. This is not to say that China will replicate the Russian response, as it continues to seek to avert the adversarial arms racing of the Cold War. But much like the series of political and technical countermeasures that Chinese experts have been dissecting over the past three decades, China has been and will be looking closely at the level of U.S.-Russian cooperation on ballistic missile defense.

For the United States, if missile defense is not ultimately about China or Russia as it claims, then initiation of a cooperative framework should be feasible in both cases. However, given that only a small number of the extensive range of Chinese articles and studies on missile defense within China touch upon its implications for Iran and North Korea, a more persuasive argument on the part of the United States is required. China remains unconvinced that the system does not seek to diminish or even to eliminate its retaliatory capabilities. These views are only bolstered by recent U.S. statements and planning in the Asia-Pacific region, heralded as a strategic “pivot” to Asia.

For all of the criticism relating to China’s level of transparency and predictability, when it comes to missile defense, China is an open book. After undertaking a range of passive countermeasures and realizing U.S. intractability on ballistic missile defense, China has selected the option of developing and exhibiting such capabilities, in part to reduce U.S. ability to engage in military and political coercion and to exert its own degree of leverage in these spheres. In reading these signals, the United States is faced with a decision as to whether to try and engage China as it has done in the nuclear field, or to continue to bypass its concerns as it has done in the space realm.

If high-level strategic stability talks and confidence building remain the ultimate goal of the United States, then engaging China in a manner similar to what it is attempting with Russia on missile defense, while adjusting for the aforementioned differences, is a way forward. China is waiting to see how these U.S.-Russian negotiations pan out. If successful, China will not want to be left out, for it harbors its own concerns about U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation at its expense. Until then, China’s current stage of evolution remains at the level of determining the best mixture of passive and active countermeasures.

Ultimately, China’s pursuit of a more active approach by demonstrating its ballistic missile defense capabilities lights the way for greater engagement. The next steps taken by the United States and Russia will serve as an indicator for China as to the level to which both sides are willing and able to compromise. By not repeating the patterns of history, the United States and Russia have the potential to create a template for the transparency, predictability, and engagement required to transition from countermeasures to comity. This foundation is crucial for both countries as they continue further talks on strategic arms reductions, and will be essential for bringing China into the discussion.

This Proliferation Analysis is based on a chapter in Alexei Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, and Natalia Bubnova, Eds. Missile Defense: Confrontation and Cooperation, Carnegie Moscow Center, forthcoming late 2012.