China has conducted a couple of hypersonic missile tests this year, showing off its hypersonic missiles which it has been doing for the past several years. It is obvious that the papers reporting these advances are backed with an intention of making the world aware that Beijing is developing these weapons. That said, it is not expected that Washington would be in for a great surprise to find that China has tested hypersonic missiles a couple of times this year.
According to the reports in the Financial Times, the US officials express shock at such development along with making a comparison of these hypersonic missile tests conducted by China to a “Sputnik moment”. Although Beijing’s missile is certainly innovative in some ways, the official reaction given by Washington somewhere seems to be exaggerated.
Beijing has increased its inventory of ICBMs in recent years as the US is vulnerable to these Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles, keeping that aside, to defend a country against a nuclear attack, no state can do so by an adversary. Also, while hypersonic missiles are certainly a technological advancement over plain old ballistic missiles, they do not alter the big picture much.
New missiles deployed by China and Russia are probably a response to the 2002 decision of Washington to withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and commence investing in ballistic-missile defence. It was evident that the Americans were trying to make their walls impenetrable while these new developments by China and Russia are a response ensuring that they are capable of penetrating those walls.
The risk of accidental nuclear war is raised with every additional warhead and delivery mechanism. The disinclination of Washington, Beijing and Moscow to work out confidence-building measures have exacerbated this in the present circumstances.
Exaggeration of technical capabilities
To create an atmosphere of awe and fear for dissuading potential challengers in the region, Beijing is quite likely exaggerating its technological capabilities.
To persuade Americans in general that a confrontation with China is perhaps not a good idea, the state is playing up its capability to strike the US homeland with ICBMs and hypersonic missiles. However, such posturing can backfire. In the current week, Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion was reaffirmed by the US President.
What does it bring in for India?
For reframing the issue from non-proliferation to non-use of nuclear weapons, an emerging interest in arms control should be seized by India who has been placed to champion a Global No First Use (GNFU) treaty as the first step. Similar to India, China also believes in a no first use policy while post-Trump Washington is likely to be receptive to the idea. That said, an opportunity seems to be opening up and Indian diplomacy can seize it.
Secondly, Space Situational Awareness (SSA) becomes extremely important even when China, US and Russia develop hypersonic missiles along with their counter-defences. a competitive advantage in the tracking of space objects, both from the ground as well as from space can be aimed to be acquired by Indian companies with the recent liberalization of India’s space industry.
On the other hand, it is possible that by focusing public investment in the physics, materials and engineering of anti-satellite and hypersonic systems, the advantage of space reforms can be taken by Delhi.