China recently carried out its second missile intercept test, which U.S. observers may be tempted to interpret as a sign that Beijing is planning to build its own national missile defense system. But before jumping to conclusions, the nature, purpose, and consequences of that test need to be carefully analyzed. 

A January 28 news report from Xinhua News Agency said that “China again carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception test within its territory Sunday.” But the Chinese version of the same statement includes an extra, important word: “China carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception technology test (中国在境内进行陆基中段反导拦截技术试验)” (emphasis added). As a result of the omission, the test may be misunderstood as involving a system meant for deployment

Li Bin
Li was a senior fellow working jointly in the Nuclear Policy Program and Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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It is true that China’s economic capacity has been growing very quickly in recent years, allowing Beijing to do much more than it could before in developing its military strength. Still, there is ample reason to doubt that Beijing has made a decision to develop a national missile defense system. 

The crucial use of the word technology means that China was trying to assess capabilities. In this case, Beijing was likely trying to better understand current U.S. capabilities and how its own compare. 

Testing a Technology Rather Than a System

China’s first missile intercept test took place on January 11, 2010, and the English version of the statement marking that effort was an accurate translation of the Chinese: “China conducted a test on ground-based mid-course missile interception technology within its territory on Monday” (emphasis added). China’s two tests thus far have focused on developing and understanding missile intercept technology rather than assessing performance of a deployable missile defense system. 

The core technology the United States uses in its missile defense is a kinetic energy technology called “hit to kill” that aims to launch interceptors to collide with incoming missiles. China apparently used this kind of technology in both of its missile intercept tests to date. 

In an intercept test of hit-to-kill technology, the chance of success depends primarily on how the interceptor performs as it homes in on missiles. In a real battle environment, a number of additional factors contribute to the success or failure of the intercept, including the ability of the interceptor to identify the right targets. 

It appears the 2010 test scenario was far from a real battle. According to a U.S. government document passed to the Telegraph by WikiLeaks, in the 2010 Chinese test, the interceptor and the target missile were launched nearly simultaneously. In battle, the interceptors would be launched after the missile, once the trajectory of the incoming missile had been detected. 

The 2010 test was probably an effort to understand the homing performance of the interceptor. And if the progression of U.S. missile tests can be used as a benchmark, the technology involved in the recent Chinese test should not have been significantly different from the previous one. 

It will be left to the Chinese political leadership to decide whether or not to apply this technology to specific systems in the future. Serious strategic studies are needed before such a decision can be made.

The Threat Perceptions Behind the Tests 

Security experts in Western countries may wonder who the assumed enemy was in the two missile intercept tests. According to the Information Bureau of China’s Defense Ministry,  “the test is defensive in nature and targets no other country.” To understand the language in this statement, one must have intimate knowledge of China’s special security concepts that have developed over the last two centuries. Even though Beijing has consistently developed new technologies, its efforts have been more about its desire to avoid falling behind other powers than about a specific threat.

Unlike the United States, which usually identifies certain hostile countries (such as the Soviet Union during the Cold War or Iran today) or groups (such as al-Qaeda) as its national security threats, China conceptualizes such threats in terms of particular situations. Rather than a particular actor, China’s National Defense White Paper in 2008 identified “the superiority of the developed countries in economy, science and technology, as well as military affairs” as a security challenge and threat. The philosophy behind the statement is that China would be beaten if it did not keep up with other countries in economic, scientific, technological, and military affairs. 

China’s concern about “falling behind” comes from its historical experience of being invaded by Western powers armed with modern firepower beginning with the First Opium War, fought between China and the UK from 1839 to 1842. The technical and military superiority of the Western powers made China vulnerable. 

Moreover, China would not have benefitted from identifying specific countries as its main security threats since it was often hard to tell which states were allies and which enemies. For example, France and the UK competed in Europe but were allies when they fought against China in the Second Opium War (1856–1860). 

And if China tried to brand all countries that offended its sovereignty as security threats, it would face too many strong enemies. The alliance that invaded China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, for instance, included eight different nations. 

The lesson China has learned from these experiences is that it must catch up to the Western powers in military technology or it could be defeated by any combination of unexpected invaders. For China, it is much easier to recognize the security challenge in falling behind than to identify specific hostile countries as security threats. 

In the past one hundred and fifty years, the Chinese government, even through the changes it has undergone as a result of revolution, has always wanted to narrow the gap between its military technologies and those of the developed powers. 

In 1983, the United States began its missile defense efforts under the banner of the Strategic Defense Initiative. China, meanwhile, was recovering from the chaos caused by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and implementing its new policy of opening to the Western world. Chinese scientists considered the American initiative to be a promotion of scientific development in the United States. They worried that the technical gap between China and the developed countries would grow if Beijing did not make similar efforts. 

Encouraged by these scientists, China launched Project 863 in March 1986 to promote scientific research, including work to understand U.S. missile defense. This program is considered a “technical reserve” that allows China to achieve the same level of scientific and technical development as advanced countries.

At that time, it was not China’s purpose to build a Chinese missile defense system to counter the U.S. ballistic missile threat. The United States was viewed as a friend rather than an enemy by China. Furthermore, it made very little sense for China to build a missile defense system to counter a large U.S. offensive nuclear force. Instead, the purpose was to understand the development of new military science and avoid being surprised by Western scientific advances. 

China’s choice of technology should also be considered in light of its aversion to falling behind. Over the years, U.S. missile defense development has demonstrated that directed energy technology for missile defense—the so-called “Star Wars” plan that involves laser and particle beams—is far from ready while hit-to-kill technology is becoming workable. Chinese scientists have been aware of this trajectory since the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative and therefore developed China’s own hit-to-kill technology. China’s 2010 and 2013 missile intercept tests demonstrated that the country had acquired this technology, but that does not mean China has a conceptual missile defense system that can target incoming missiles from any specific country. 

Knowledge of Missile Defense and Strategic Stability

The United States would find it politically and technically difficult to assure China that a U.S. missile defense system would not undermine China’s nuclear deterrent capability. But China’s two missile intercept tests have provided Chinese scientists firsthand knowledge about core missile defense technology. This knowledge can be used in assessing the degree of strategic stability between the United States and China in addition to serving as a reserve that helps Beijing avoid being surprised by Western scientific developments in the future. 

For a long time, Washington and Beijing have disagreed about the nature of U.S. missile defense. China worries that U.S. missile defense will undermine its deterrent capability and therefore erode U.S.-Chinese strategic stability. The United States emphasizes that it does not intend to weaken China’s deterrent capability but does not explain what limitations in the capabilities of its missile defenses prevent it from doing so. Nor has any recent U.S. administration or Congress indicated an interest in accepting treaty limits on potential deployments of national missile defense systems, a step that would reassure Beijing. And some proponents of national missile defense in the United States have argued that Washington should seek missile defense capabilities that could negate or significantly blunt Beijing’s retaliatory nuclear capabilities.

If the United States chooses mid-course missile interceptors as a major component of its missile defense system, it will be difficult to reassure China. Beijing may believe that Washington is attempting to undermine its capability even if U.S. politicians allow for assurances to China about limitations in U.S. missile defense capability. 

A numeric limitation of interceptors by the United States cannot fundamentally reassure China. Missile defense capability is measured by the number of interceptors (also called the thickness of the defense), the range of an interceptor (referred to here as macroperformance), and issues related to precision (microperformance). As China has a small nuclear force, it may still consider a small number of interceptors (a “thin” U.S. missile defense system) to be a threat. 

A treaty limitation could afford Beijing some confidence that it would have time to react to planned U.S. deployments of a defense thick enough to impede China’s nuclear retaliatory capabilities. But it is unlikely that Washington would agree to such a limit in the first place. While reassuring Beijing, it would also constrain the U.S. ability to further develop its technology. 

Even if the United States decided to provide some reassurance to China, it would be difficult to do so. The macroperformance of a mid-course missile defense system depends mainly on the range an interceptor can reach to engage an incoming missile. The range depends on the time required and available for an early-warning system to detect the incoming missile, the detection range of the fire-control radar (which is designed to provide information to the interceptor so it hits its target), and the speeds of the interceptor and incoming missile. This is the most transparent part of a missile defense system. 

The United States may be able to inform China about the macroperformance of its missile defense system. However, information about the macroperformance of the U.S. system, which is designed to intercept North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), would not be useful in reassuring China. The trajectory of a hypothetical North Korean ICBM heading to North America is very close to that of a Chinese ICBM. As a result, the macroperformance needed by a U.S. missile defense system targeting a hypothetical North Korean ICBM would be similar to one targeting a Chinese ICBM. 

The microperformance of a missile defense system includes its detection and discrimination capabilities, the statistical odds that engagement between an interceptor and a missile will result in a kill (the kill probability), the capability to counter multiple targets, and so on. The United States could reassure Russia and China by informing them about limitations in the microperformance of the U.S. missile defense system. 

But the United States may not want to do so for both technical and political reasons. Technically, the details of microperformance may be useful in helping competitors develop and deploy countermeasures. Politically, U.S. missile defense designers would not be happy to publicly acknowledge technical weaknesses of their system. 

So Chinese scientists must provide their own assessments of U.S. missile defense capability to their political leaders. Their assessments about the number of interceptors and the macroperformance of the U.S. missile defense system may not differ significantly from those made by their American counterparts. However, before the two missile intercept tests, Chinese assessments of the microperformance of the U.S. missile defense system must have been based on worst-case assumptions. The knowledge Chinese scientists gained from the two tests enables them to more realistically assess U.S. missile defense capability. 

The knowledge gained could also help relieve some of the Chinese concerns about the strategic capability of U.S. missile defense systems. The Chinese scientists who worked on the hit-to-kill technology for the two tests should be invited to join discussions on strategic stability. They could make significant contributions by sharing their assessments of the real capability of U.S. missile defenses and their impact on strategic stability between United States and China. 

Next Steps

If China eventually decides to develop its hit-to-kill knowledge into a missile defense system, it will be a choice made by political leaders and should be informed by serious strategic studies. China has three potential options going forward: First, it can delay further action and simply treat its missile defense technology as a technical reserve to draw on at some point in the future. Second, Beijing can develop a Chinese version of a national missile defense system. Third, China can opt to develop a point defense system to protect command and control centers and some strategic weapons. 

A national missile defense system is designed to defend the major part of a country’s territory against ballistic missile attacks. As the size of Chinese territory is about the same as that of the United States, the framework of a conceptual Chinese national missile defense system should be similar to that of the U.S. system (now referred to as the Homeland Defense System). But building an effective national missile defense system would be much more difficult for China than it was for the United States, regardless of whether it is designed to counter U.S. or regional missile attacks. 

In the U.S.-Chinese context, it would be very inefficient for China to deploy a national missile defense system to counter U.S. offensive nuclear forces. If the Chinese want to use a national missile defense system to limit the damage caused by U.S. strategic missiles, they will need many more interceptors than the United States would need for the same purpose. China would have to pay much more money than United States to build up its capability. And such a missile defense system, if it contained enough interceptors, would have broader costs as well—the same negative impact as the U.S. national missile defense system currently does on U.S.-Chinese strategic stability. 

Another purpose of a Chinese national missile defense system would be countering an attack of a few missiles. This is similar to the argument the United States uses today to counter missile threats from North Korea and Iran. 

However, Beijing’s geopolitical situation is very different from Washington’s. Since none of its immediate neighbors has deployed ballistic missiles, the United States does not have to rely on its national missile defense system to stop missiles launched near its border. By contrast, quite a few of China’s immediate neighbors have acquired or are developing ballistic missiles. Compared to the challenge facing the U.S. Homeland Defense System, it would be much more difficult for a conceptual Chinese national missile defense system to defend against ballistic missiles launched near the Chinese border because the early-warning time would be very short for China. A national missile defense system does not seem to be a good choice in this context either. 

A point defense system is designed to defend a few small areas against ballistic missile attacks. This is a much more reasonable choice than a national missile defense system for China if it decides to develop its hit-to-kill technology into a missile defense system. A point defense system could be used to protect the Chinese command and control center and to make sure that Chinese political and military leaders would survive a surprise preemptive nuclear strike so that they could direct a retaliatory nuclear strike. The system could also be used to protect some of China’s strategic nuclear weapons and increase their survivability. 

In such a way, a point defense system would make China’s nuclear deterrent more credible and ensure its strategic stability with other nuclear-armed countries. 

Such a system also may have significantly lower technical and financial requirements than a national system. A point defense interceptor does not have to be as fast as a national missile defense interceptor, the fire-control radar does not have to be deployed as far forward, and there are more early-warning choices for point defense than for national missile defense. 

Comprehensive strategic studies and debates are necessary before China can make a choice about how to move forward. With two interceptor technology tests now under its belt, China can begin to have these discussions, but a decision is probably some years in the future. Western analysts should therefore not confuse the recent missile intercept tests for a Chinese commitment to build a national missile defense system.