China has been showing off its hypersonic missiles for years. The fact that Chinese scientists have published articles reporting their progress in such a sensitive area indicates that Beijing wants the world to know that it is developing these weapons. The US government is clearly aware of this. So you wouldn’t expect Washington to be very surprised to find that China has tested hypersonic missiles a few times this year.
Yet messages in the Financial times and elsewhere, US officials have expressed shock at this development, comparing China’s hypersonic missile tests to a “Sputnik moment,” a Cold War reference that recalls how the Soviet Union surprised the world in 1957 by being the first to create an artificial satellite. into Earth orbit. We don’t have full details and Beijing’s missile will certainly be innovative in some ways, but the official response in Washington seems over the top.
Also, while hypersonic missiles are certainly a technological advancement over plain old ballistic missiles, they don’t change the big picture much. No country has the ability to defend itself against a nuclear attack by an adversary. Even without hypersonic missiles, despite all the hype surrounding missile defense, the US is vulnerable to Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles. Therefore, in recent years Beijing has increased its inventory of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and built hundreds of new missile silos to ship them.
Rather than sparking a new arms race, the new missiles deployed by China and Russia are in response to Washington’s 2002 decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and invest in ballistic missile defense. The Americans tried to make their walls impenetrable. The Chinese and Russians respond by making sure they can penetrate those walls. This is actually a good thing, because vulnerability to nuclear attacks is the basis of strategic deterrence and world peace. Unfortunately, each additional warhead and delivery mechanism increases the risk of an unintended nuclear war. This is exacerbated in the current circumstances by the reluctance of Washington, Beijing and Moscow to work out confidence-building measures, to forget about arms control.
Beijing is most likely exaggerating its technological capabilities to create an atmosphere of awe and fear to discourage potential challengers in the region. Increasing its ability to hit its homeland with ICBMs and hypersonic missiles helps convince Americans in general that confronting China may not be a good idea. However, such an attitude can backfire. This week, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. After all, nuclear deterrence is a two-way street.
Washington’s unwarranted public consternation over China’s tally of hypersonic missile tests may well be part of the defense agency’s political negotiation process. As any parent will attest, a reliable way for a child to obtain an expensive gadget is to tell the parent that “the other child already has it!” We can expect the US Congress to allocate larger budgets for both hypersonic weapons and missile defense.
What does this mean for India? The current trajectory of US-China relations presents three key opportunities.
First, New Delhi should seize an emerging interest in arms control to reframe the issue from non-proliferation to non-use of nuclear weapons. India is ideally placed to defend a Global No First Use (GNFU) treaty as a first step. Beijing, like India, has a no-first-use policy, and a post-Trump Washington will likely be more receptive to the idea. An opportunity is opening and Indian diplomacy is well placed to seize it.
Second, even as China, Russia and the US develop hypersonic missiles and their counter-defences, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is becoming extremely important. With the recent liberalization of the Indian space industry, Indian companies can strive for a competitive advantage in tracking space objects, both from the ground and from space. An independent SSA is not only crucial for space defense, but also has the potential to become strategic technology that other countries need.
Third, New Delhi can benefit from space reforms by targeting public investment in the physics, materials and engineering of antisatellite and hypersonic systems. It’s not so much about following the path chosen by China or the US, but about acquiring sufficient knowledge in key technology areas that keep options available.
In the meantime, should we be concerned about China’s hypersonic missiles? As an advocate of minimal credible deterrence, I would argue that as long as China remains vulnerable to India’s nuclear weapons, the size and sophistication of Beijing’s arsenal should not worry us too much. The bigger China’s arsenal, the bigger the problem… for Beijing. New Delhi has wisely achieved strategic deterrence without getting into an arms race. We have to stay on track.
Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent center for public policy research and education
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