By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan*
Earlier this month, China tested its longest range intercontinental ballistic missile, DF-41. This solid-fueled road mobile missile, tested on April 12, is considered more advanced than earlier Chinese missiles of the ICBM-class such as the DF-31 and is reported to have the range to hit any part of the US mainland. Commenting on the test, US Strategic Command Commander Adm. Cecil Haney noted that China’s testing of missiles carrying multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) reflect a growing focus and investment in both conventional and strategic forces. The DF-41 is certainly one of the newer missiles and may be considered as more potent, but is it a game changer in the Asia Pacific theatre?
The news about the testing was first reported by Bill Gertz in Washington Free Beacon on April 19. While there were reports that suggested that DF-41 development was halted sometime before 2000, clearly the programme has been pursued, though with some apparent interruptions. In 2013, the head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau made a statement to the Taiwanese Parliament that China was still developing DF-41.
Two days after the DF-41 test was revealed, China’s Ministry of National Defence acknowledged its testing on April 12 and made a reference to it, but did not disclose the location. The ministry said, “It is common for us to conduct tests, within the territory as planned, for scientific research. Such tests are not aimed at any specific country and target,” though this latter claim must be met with skepticism as the missile is targeted clearly at the US. Beijing’s actions should be seen as clearly upping the ante in the nuclear arms race with the US.
Some reports said the test was conducted near South China Sea (SCS) although the Ministry of Defence dismissed it saying “the so-called test location reported by the media is pure conjecture.” A test in the South China Sea could be considered a lot more provocative. However, China has done other provocative actions in the SCS without adequate response from any of the major powers.
This latest test was possibly the seventh time China is testing the DF-41 missile. This missile has longer range than the only surviving US ICBM, the Minuteman 3. The DF-41 has an operational range of 12,000-15,000 km as against the 13,000 km range of the Minuteman missile. There are also reports that suggest that China has been upgrading the older single warhead DF-5 missiles with MIRVs. One important point to note here is that the US prefers to base its missiles at sea (Trident II) unlike China which largely bases its strategic arsenals on land-based missiles.
These developments are taking place against the backdrop of increasing tension between the US and China in the SCS, which has been the result of an increasingly belligerent China. Chinese actions on the SCS, East China Sea and the Sino-Indian border, its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea along with an increase in close proximity activities on the air and maritime front have pushed Chinese neighbours to pursue external balancing while beefing up their own defensive capabilities. The timing of these tests are also interesting. Only a few days ago, one of the Vice Chairmen of China’s Central Military Commission, Gen. Fan Changlong, had travelled to the Fiery Cross Reef while the US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, had visited the aircraft carrier USS Stennis as it sailed to South China Sea just three days prior to the test.
China’s government and scholars have continued to emphasize that dialogue and negotiations are the ways to resolve territorial and sovereignty issues and that China is against any kind of militarisation of the South China Sea. For instance, Zhang Tuosheng, the director of the Research Department at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, said, “The best course is to embark on serious dialogue to resolve differences, not sensationalist behavior or blaming the other again and again.” But there has been some gap between the Chinese rhetoric and actions. China’s actions in the last few years have increased the complexities of the South China Sea dispute and raised the level of apprehension among the neighbours. China appears to be testing the waters. It started with building artificial islands in the South China Sea, followed by operating military helicopters out of these islands and deployment of surface to air missiles (SAMs). Yet, the reaction from its neighbours and the big powers has been fairly mild. The US conducted a few rounds of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, but these have not been sufficient to deter China from pursuing its aggressive steps.
Reports suggest that China is in the process of beefing up its nuclear arsenals both in quantitative and qualitative terms. Analysts put the number of Chinese nuclear warheads to be anywhere between 250 and 300, before it began the process of MIRVing its nuclear missiles. The DF-41 is believed to be equipped with 6-10 MIRVs, which suggest the possibility of a bigger arsenal. There are questions about whether China is also reviewing its nuclear strategy and whether the No First Use policy might be discarded. All these developments are also taking place at a time when the US, especially the Obama Administration, is talking about nuclear disarmament and attempting to reduce the centrality of nuclear weapons. But the Chinese missile test, along with its aggressive behaviour, could spur a new round of competition and higher military spending among the small and big Asian powers in the coming years.