China air defense tests matter to the Middle East - analysis

Reference to 'nuclear blackmail' and other tie-ins with US-China tensions, showcase their ramifications.

 Military vehicles carrying hypersonic cruise missiles DF-100 drive past Tiananmen Square during the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China in Beijing (photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)
Military vehicles carrying hypersonic cruise missiles DF-100 drive past Tiananmen Square during the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China in Beijing
(photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)

China’s Ministry of Defense said it carried out a test of a ground-based interceptor missile-defense system and that it had “achieved the expected purpose.”

This “land-based, mid-course antiballistic missile (ABM) technical test” was done on Sunday, “with analysts saying the successful interception proved the reliability of the country’s antiballistic missile umbrella at a time when technologies on both ballistic missiles and antiballistic missile interceptors are improving,” China’s Global Times reported.

This is important because Beijing is trying to showcase its military capabilities and the expansion of its defense systems. China recently launched another aircraft carrier, named Fujian, the third it has put to sea. China will soon be one of the world’s naval leaders in terms of size, tonnage and its ships’ abilities.

Aircraft carriers are all about projecting power globally, which is part of the transformation of Beijing from a regional into a global power.

All the charts and data point to this reality, since the giant Asian country’s economy is massive and growing. China is also a leader in CO2 emissions, making it a polluter as well – and those emissions are still growing.

 Barak MK Air and Missile Defense System (credit: COURTESY IAI) Barak MK Air and Missile Defense System (credit: COURTESY IAI)

Western countries are concerned. Recent incidents between China, the US, Canada and Australia illustrate the tensions. Australia recently accused China of intercepting one of its warplanes. Canada made similar accusations. Beijing has warned Washington about its “dangerous” Taiwan policy. All of this marks a very assertive turn for China.

Air defense in this context matters, both locally and globally. China, for instance, entered the market for military-armed drones in the last decade. Countries in the Middle East have acquired some of them.

Beijing is now talking about its new air defenses. This matters because countries are rushing to equip themselves with modern air defenses following Iran’s use of drones and missiles and in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Israel, which makes the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow systems to defend against various kinds of missile threats, is a leader in air-defense capabilities.

Countries around the world are interested in acquiring Israeli technology, including radars, and some have purchased Israeli air defenses and radar. This matters because the Middle East is a potentially huge market for new air-defense acquisitions. Al-Ain media reported on the China air-defense test, indicating that countries in this area are paying attention.

China’s Defense Ministry said its recent test was of a defensive nature and not aimed at any country.

“It marks [the second] consecutive year China has conducted this kind of test,” the Global Times reported. “A similar test was held in February 2021, according to an announcement of the Chinese Defense Ministry at the time.”

The latest test “brings the tally of publicly announced Chinese land-based ABM technical tests to six,” the report said. “According to media reports and official statements, other known ABM tests were carried out by China in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018 and 2021. It was not revealed in which interception phase the test in 2014 was carried out, while the other five were carried out in the mid-course phase.”

China's point

CHINA IS making a point here. It is showcasing that its systems are “reliable.” The paper, in an interesting assertion, claims this can “serve as a deterrent against nuclear blackmails, a Chinese military expert who requested anonymity told the Global Times.”

Why would China be worried about nuclear blackmail? The issue of nuclear tensions regarding the Asian power has not been in the news much, except for a few voices that have said tensions over Taiwan matter because the US and China both have nuclear weapons. But there is no reason to believe that Beijing thinks America is “blackmailing” it regarding nuclear threats.

So who might be blackmailing? After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were media reports, likely fed by Moscow, that claimed there was a danger of nuclear conflict over Ukraine if the West got involved. These arguments have been picked up by the far Right and far Left who oppose Ukraine in the West. The Vatican has also hinted at “World War Three.”

But it is Iran that is truly using nuclear blackmail. Tehran is seeking to enrich uranium and use nuclear blackmail all over the Middle East.

China has a new 25-year deal with the Islamic Republic. Is the reference to nuclear blackmail a reference to Iran’s and Russia’s behavior – two countries that are close to China both physically and diplomatically? Why would China send this message to these friends? Although the messaging is not clear, it is worth listening to.

The Global Times notes how difficult it is to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles that use multiphase rockets and boosters to fly outside and reenter the atmosphere.

“Intercepting an intercontinental ballistic missile during its mid-course is very challenging because during this phase, the missile, usually equipped with nuclear warheads, travels high outside of the atmosphere at very high velocity,” experts told the paper.

While it is easier to hit a missile directly after launch, it is hard to get close to the launch site, “which is usually deep in hostile territory,” the report said. “In the terminal phase, the interception is also challenging because the speed of the diving missile is very high, analysts mentioned.”

THE REPORT said countries around the world are developing hypersonic missiles with wave-rider gliders “that can adjust their trajectories mid-flight when they reenter the atmosphere, which makes terminal interception even more difficult, [so] mid-course interception has become even more important,” analysts remarked.

China and Russia have expressed concern about US deployment of THAAD air defense in South Korea, Al-Ain reported.

“China has provided few details about its missile programs except for occasional brief statements by the Ministry of Defense or in state media,” the report said.

In May, an article at Defense One said Guam needs better air defenses.

“The Defense Department has dithered as China builds ballistic, hypersonic and cruise missiles to attack Guam, America’s most important military base in the western Pacific,” the report said. “The good news is that the Pentagon is finally requesting nearly $1 billion for the island’s missile defense in the 2023 budget. But seeing it through on time will require assertive congressional oversight and action.”

The island could be a target for China, the article said, adding: “The island hosts the US Navy’s only submarine base in the western Pacific, one of the few facilities where submarines can reload weapons in [the military] theater [of operations]. Guam is home to an enormous air base that hosted bombers, fighters and support aircraft in World War II and the Vietnam War, and would likely play a similar role in any contingency with China, including in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.”

THE ARTICLE said the island should include a mix of Patriot and THAAD systems as well as other air defenses.

“The Guam installation should resemble the one in Korea, which allows commanders to mix THAAD and Patriot radars and interceptors for a best-sensor, best-shooter capability,” the report said. “All these systems can provide regional and theater commanders with situational awareness through the Command and Control, Battle Management and Communications system.”

Taken together, the Al-Ain and Global Times articles, as well as other information looking at recent tensions around China, illustrate how important these developments are for global security. This matters to the Middle East because the contest between China and the West – particularly the Five Eyes intelligence alliance countries (the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) – will have ramifications for the Middle East.

The types of defense systems involved are also important. The close relationship between Israel and the US regarding missile defense, including American backing for the Arrow, David’s Sling and Patriot, matters a great deal. The Abraham Accords and the close relationships linking Israel with Greece, the Gulf, Egypt and India – as well as Israel’s ties to Singapore, Australia and South Korea – all matter in this wider context.