Over the past month, China has showed how its approach to its own rising superpower status applies to its defence policy. The results aren’t exactly reassuring.
Outside of its borders, China has forged a wide-ranging policy of outreach and investment in Africa. China claims the offshore extractive resources, and even the offshore territories, of nearly all of its immediate geographical neighbours in the South China Sea (see this Business Insider graphic for more). The country holds substantial American debt, and commands an enormous trade surplus with the world’s largest economy — a label that it hopes to seize from a wheezing U.S.
In the military realm, China’s ambitions have a tendency to manifest themselves through weapons technologies that skirt the boundaries of international legality. Over the past month, it’s been proven to be working on two such capabilities.
This is an asymmetrical tactic: China will never have a military with the global reach or technological and operational superiority of the U.S.’s. But it can at least develop worrying and globally impactful capabilities that most countries wouldn’t necessarily want for themselves — unless global norms rapidly deteriorated.
The past month offered two stark reminders of China’s asymmetrical approach to its military development. In late July, the U.S. State Department determined that China had conducted a “non-destructive” test of an anti-satellite missile. This wasn’t nearly as alarming as China’s early 2007 test of the an anti-satellite battery in which it destroyed a satellite already in orbit and created a potentially-destructive orbital debris field.
But even the abstract possibility of space warfare carries extraordinary risks for the world’s communications and GPS infrastructure — tools that the developed world’s governments and militaries depend upon. By even pursuing anti-satellite capabilities China is suggesting that it might consider orbital assets to be in play in a future conflict.
Such weaponry isn’t exactly illegal under the existing international legal regime, but it looks ahead to a mode of warfare that much of the world shudders to contemplate at the moment, including the U.S. In an email to Space News in the wake of last month’s test, a U.S. State Department spokesperson called on China “to refrain from destabilizing actions … such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems.”
And two weeks ago, China confirmed the existence of the long-rumoured Dongfeng-41A next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, which can supposedly carry up to ten nuclear warheads a distance of 12,000 kilometers.
Multi-warhead missiles were banned under a 1993 arms reduction treaty between Russia and the U.S. that Russia later annulled. The treaty only applied to those two countries, and even then, it lasted for less than a decade.
But the logic that convinced the world’s leading nuclear powers to eschew the very type of missile that China is developing still applies.
In a nuclear exchange, a country with multi-warhead missiles could deliver a potential death-blow to its enemy on a single volley. More importantly, it would have an incentive to do so if it believed its opponents had the same kind of multi-bomb delivery system. “First strike” would become “only strike” under such a state of play: an aggressor would have to defeat its enemy on the first go-round if it wanted to defeat them at all, with little room for error or negotiation.
Again, this is an asymmetric capability. China is developing weaponry that the rest of the world has mostly eschewed, in the hope of deriving an advantage from their rivals’ complacency.
This is no reason for panic — China isn’t about to go around blowing up satellites or lobbing dozens of nukes. It’s an ambitious and sometimes aggressive actor, but by no means an irrational or craven one.
But the past month reveals something important about China’s rise to superpower status. China’s growing power and influence doesn’t just derive from its population, economic clout, or sizable military. It also comes from its willingness to plot its own course, even against prevailing international norms — and its certainty that it’s become too large and indispensable to have to pay any price for it.
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