China's orbiting missile seen exploiting US defence weakness

China's reported launch of a hypersonic missile into orbit has raised concerns that US rivals are quickly neutralising the Pentagon's missile defences even as it invests tens of billions of dollars in upgrades.

The Financial Times reported last Saturday that the Chinese military in August sent a nuclear-capable missile into low-orbit space and around the globe before cruising down to its target.

Although the weapon missed its mark by about two dozen miles, the paper said, the technology, once perfected, could be used to send nuclear warheads over the South Pole and around American anti-missile systems in the northern hemisphere.

China disputed the paper's account, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian describing it as a "routine test of a space vehicle to verify technology for spacecraft reusability" and comparing it with systems being developed by private companies.

"China will work with other countries in the world for the peaceful use of space for the benefit of mankind," Mr Zhao told a regular news briefing on Monday.

If the missile test is confirmed, it would suggest that Chinese President Xi Jinping is exploring orbital strikes as a way to counter US advancements in shooting down ballistic missiles before they threaten the American homeland.

In 2018, Russia had also rolled out a series of new weapons that President Vladimir Putin said would render US missile defences "ineffective".

The moves illustrate how the Pentagon's push to develop and deploy more advanced anti-missile systems, ostensibly to protect against weapons from North Korea and Iran, may be accelerating a new nuclear arms race.

Under Mr Kim Jong Un, North Korea has developed solid-fuel ballistic missiles designed to fly too low to be intercepted by a US-operated anti-missile system called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or Thaad.

Dr Li Nan, a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute specialising in Chinese security and military policies at the National University of Singapore, described China sending a missile into orbit as "a game-changer".

"If China was able to deploy one, that would basically neutralise US missile defence," Dr Li said. "It makes it very hard for the US to deal with this new type of missile and will make it very costly to combat and build up new capabilities to counteract this technology."

Mr Ankit Panda, the Stanton senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said China's description of the test as a "space vehicle" likely cannot be taken at face value, since putting a hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit would not be routine.

Although US ship-based systems might be able to intercept such an attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile, Mr Panda said, ground-based systems in the north would not.

"Existing US counter-ICBM defences all rely on intercepting the incoming warhead outside the atmosphere, which is partly why China has looked to gliders in the first place," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2021, with the headline 'China's orbiting missile seen exploiting US defence weakness'. Subscribe