For more than two decades, China stringently criticized the US BMD program. In the early 2000s, China formally denied any plans to develop a national ballistic missile defense system. Chinese Academicians and military officials have rationalized China’s expanding nuclear capabilities to concerns over the US ballistic missile defense advances. Since 2010, the Chinese posture has taken a U-turn and China is now actively developing and pursuing a national ballistic missile defense system.
On Feb 4th, 2021, China declared success in the latest mid-course anti-missile intercept test. It was China’s fifth land-based ABM technical test and the fourth land-based, mid-course ABM technical test publicly announced. China claims that it is the second country after the US to possess interception technology which aims to knock out incoming missiles mid-flight. The news agency Xinhua said such tests involving highly complicated technologies for detecting, tracking and destroying a ballistic missile flying in outer space have only been tried before by the United States and Japan.
While the Chinese defense ministry said the test did not target any particular country, a PLA source hinted that the midcourse anti-ballistic missile test – which could intercept an incoming nuclear warhead – may be intended as a warning to India. Timing of this ABM test is very significant as it serves an important message to the new US Administration of President Joe Biden Jr. China’s is also unnerved because of the continued India-US strategic relationship despite change in US administration with the annual Yudh Abhyas joint military exercises ongoing on. Meanwhile the US and Russia agreed to extend the 'New START' nuclear arms treaty which was supposed to expire on Feb 5th, 2021. The extension of the landmark arms control treaty will continue to limit the number of nuclear missiles and warheads each country can deploy.
China's Ministry of National Defense emphasized that China conducted the test within its border, and the test reached the desired objective. The statement emphasized the defensive nature of the test. Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, told the PLA mouthpiece the Global Times that mid-course is the most vital phase in the interception of a ballistic missile. China has already mastered the mid-course ABM system, and conducting the latest test shows that the system is becoming mature, and the success rate and reliability of interceptions are increasing significantly. Known ABM tests were carried out by China previously in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2018, according to media reports and official statements. Following the BMD test by China on January 22nd, 2013, Chinese military experts explicitly confirmed that China will, indeed, develop its own BMD system. China’s BMD shield postures have gradually evolved over the last two decades from stringent criticism of the US BMD build-up to an open and tacit admission that China will focus on its own complete ABM system.
China persistently has refused to quantify the number of warheads it needed for a credible and effective nuclear deterrence. China insists that it has a very limited number of nuclear weapons. Chinese military experts maintain that, "A certain amount of opaqueness is an integral part of China's no-first-use policy". Chinese experts enumerated three essential characteristics for the Chinese nuclear deterrent: it has to be survivable against first strike, it has to be credible enough in numbers and in delivery systems, and lastly it has to have an effective and punitive second-strike retaliatory capability.
Meanwhile, China is continuing to develop its ASAT weapons till a legally binding multilateral treaty banning weaponization of the space is signed and ratified. A Chinese military expert attributed to and categorically linked this shift in Chinese strategic thinking to the US decision in the beginning of 2010s to deploy 14 long-range ballistic missile interceptor batteries in the Indo-Pacific Island of Guam ostensibly in response to threats posed by the DPRK thereby potentially degrading the Chinese nuclear deterrent. Change in the Chinese nuclear posture is also linked to the US development and deployment of advanced precision guided conventional warheads in the Asian theatre capable of destroying Chinese multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) ballistic missile silos thereby degrading the Chinese minimum nuclear deterrent. China will continue to develop more nuclear warheads and will keep its nuclear capabilities fully opaque.
As China develops its own national BMD shield, it is bound to degrade India’s second-strike capability. India will have to operationalize and deploy its longest range, most potent nuclear-capable ballistic missile Agni-V soon. Agni-V missile has a range of 5000 to 8000 km and covers strategic targets all over mainland China. India will also need to take a significant step towards operationalizing its indigenous experimental Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system that can target incoming missiles with its own interceptor missiles. In order to maintain its security, India will have to take certain defensive strategic postures that may include but are not limited to joining the QUAD in full force and going for Indo-pacific alliances.
On Feb 8th, 2021, Indian PM Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden Jr. discussed telephonically to strengthen the bilateral strategic relations including QUAD, free and open Indo-Pacific and Chinese aggression against its neighbors. In his outreach to the world leaders, President Biden also spoke to the Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping on Feb 10th, 2021. The president raised a number of contentious issues during the call, according to a readout provided by the White House, underscoring his "fundamental concerns about Beijing's coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuse in Xinjiang and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan. In a statement released by the White House, "Mr. Biden and Xi also discussed combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the "shared challenges of global health security, climate change and preventing weapons proliferation,"
Forced by Chinese missile proliferation, India will have to take a range of defensive strategic postures without entering into a financially prohibitive nuclear and missile race for strategic parity. While accepting nuclear and missile gap with China, smart strategic steps for asymmetric balancing may include beefing the QUAD and going for Indo-Pacific security alliances.
India should consider the following options: Discarding India’s “NFU” doctrine as suggested earlier, developing ICBMs in the range of 8000-10,000km range, modernizing India’s ballistic missile shield program, further developing India’s ASAT and space capabilities, upgrading the DSA (Defense Space Agency) into a full-fledged space weapons command, advancing nuclear powered Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) program and developing dual use facilities in Central Asia, South China Sea and East China Sea. Despite her strategic autonomy posture, India should consider obtaining missile defense technology from the US, create joint ventures and co-production of interceptors on the pattern of Brahmos.
The new US administration must not give a free pass to a bellicose China on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferation. Chinese expansionism is ongoing on the land, in the oceans and in the space also. US must take cognizance of the Chinese development of national ballistic missile shield, space and ASAT weapons program and the attempts to control the busy commercial sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific. In view of increased Chinese belligerence and in order to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific, the QUAD alliance must be expanded and strengthened militarily. China’s nuclear and ballistic missile program must be brought under the purview of the new “START” nuclear arms treaty. China’s continued membership in the NSG needs to be critically reviewed as it has continued horizontal nuclear proliferation.