The Chinese Army just tested a new hypersonic missile this last August, according to reports made by the British Financial Times newspaper. “Far more advanced than the U.S. officials realized,” the tests, said an unnamed source, took the U.S. intelligence officials by surprise.
The article describes that China sent a missile carrying a hypersonic glide, the rocket circled the globe, and then it cruised toward the target, which it missed by a few dozen miles. Hypersonic missiles are more difficult to intercept than regular missiles because they fly at lower altitudes and can reach up to five times the speed of sound.
Chinese government officials have denied that the reported tests are accurate. Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian declared that China had conducted a routine test proving their spacecraft technologies, saying “this was not a missile, this was a spacecraft” during a press conference.
American diplomats have expressed their concerns over the possibility of China having hypersonic capabilities. Reuters reported that Robert Wood, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said that “hypersonic technology is something we are concerned about” adding that the United States has “held back from pursuing military applications for this technology” but that since Russia and China have been actively developing this type of capabilities, then the U.S. might have to “respond in kind”.
Most concerning, however, was Wood’s own admission that there is currently no technology that can give an effective defense to hypersonic missiles. “We just don’t know how we can defend against that technology, neither does China nor Russia”, said Wood to a group of reporters.
What are Hypersonic Missiles? Why are they important?
The reports of Chinese hypersonic capabilities are the latest development in the growing arms race for these new types of missiles, with Beijing joining Moscow and Washington D.C. in the high-tech rocket race. Russia tested a new type of hypersonic cruise missile (called Tsirkon) earlier in July and -despite Wood’s allegations- the United States has also tested similar technology recently, with the Pentagon successfully testing the Raytheon hypersonic weapon last month. Although they are slower than ballistic missiles, the hypersonic gliders enable the missiles to partially reach orbit, which reduces the adversaries’ ability to respond in a timely manner.
However, the recent missile test needs to be understood in the context of the region. Jason Killmeyer, a counterterrorism and defense policy expert, said to El American that what surprised Intelligence experts was “the pace of their (China’s) progress, not the technology itself”, despite some misinterpreting a quote from the FT article, which lead to some to say that it was the technology behind hypersonic missiles what surprised American intelligence. Although the technology is not unknown, Killmeyer said that “it’s never a good day for the Intelligence Community when the word “stunned” is used”.
Killmeyer also clarified that the missile test needs to be observed in the context of the “broader effort at global deterrence” and that he does not think that the test will be “altering the balance of power significantly” nor does it change the calculus over Taiwan for either country.
Killmeyer, who worked as Chief of Staff in Global Defense at Deloitte Consulting, also said that the U.S. needs to “continue to grow its presence in the Pacific”, saying that what’s missing from the U.S is “a response that says to China, we see the aggression, we see the moves, here’s our posture change in response, here’s our marshaling of allies in a very public manner in response”. For him, it is time for the U.S. to decide “if the pivot to Asia was only rhetoric or if we are able to embark upon it as the change in strategic posture it was meant to be”.
For Killmeyer, the “Pivot” was not meant to be a minor change or just add a few more ships in the region, “it’s supposed to be uncomfortable” and that if the U.S “embraces that now we actually make conflict less likely”.
Weapons testing, trade wars, and tensions over Taiwan
The relationship between the U.S. and China has grown increasingly heated over the last few years. Both countries have been engaged in a trade war since the first years of the Trump Administration, a policy that President Biden has maintained. Both countries have also increased their rhetorical fights, with the U.S. calling up China for its appalling treatment of the minority Muslim Uyghur community in Xinjian (calling it a genocide), its brutal repression of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and the opaque way Beijing has treated the probes over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic that paralyzed the world in 2020.
The tensions between both powers have also gone beyond the realm of words, and there have been increasing worries that a conflict between both powers might arise over the status of the democratically governed island of Taiwan. Beijing has claimed that the island belongs to the mainland government since the end of the Chinese Civil War, while the U.S. has maintained ambiguous support towards the autonomy of the island, while also selling huge amounts of military hardware to the Taipei government.
Over the last year, China has sent record numbers of fighter jets near Taiwan’s airspace, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sending almost 150 military aircraft to Taiwan’s Air defense zone (not the same as airspace) just two weeks ago. The U.S. has also shifted its attention towards the region, with Washington sealing a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the UK, and with Biden meeting with the leaders of the Quad (India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S.) in Washington D.C. in late September.