Explainer: China joins heated race for new missiles, vies with U.S., Russia | Reuters

DF-17 missiles paraded in Tienanmen Square on the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, October 1st, 2019. (REUTERS)

The People’s Republic of China, by all accounts, launched something into space in August.

The nature of this launch, however has come under scrutiny following a Financial Times report on the 17th of October (link leads to paywall,) which claimed that China successfully launched a “nuclear-capable hypersonic missile … that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.” It cited unnamed intelligence informants.

This news spread quickly, with English-speaking media publishing their own stories, citing the Financial Times article as the source. As a result — the relatively ignored, nearly 3-month-old launch gained a new life as a potential security issue for the United States and its allies, made public.

Zhao Lijian, the press secretary for the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the 18th was asked about the FT’s report, and he responded that the launch was the test of a “a spacecraft, not a missile.” It was launched, according to the Ministry, to test reusable rockets, technology still yet proven, despite Elon Musk-owned SpaceX making strides in creating the first tested reusable first stage (For reference, most modern rockets rely on three-stage launches, ejecting the empty fuel containers in-flight) in its Falcon 9 Rocket.

However, it’s currently unproven as to what the nature of the launch really was. Regardless, both developments have security implications for the United States and its interests. Hypersonic missile development is a worrying prospect for any adversary, even if some worries may be overblown. The threat that Chinese forward capabilities pose can’t be underestimated in light of unfavorable war games and simulations, along with fiery rhetoric from the PRC as Taiwan and US allies continue their posturing over the Taiwan strait. On the other hand, successful development of reusable two-stage rockets by the China National Space Administration would be a massive blow to research and capabilities of the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and private American firms like the aforementioned SpaceX. Having the upper hand in reducing costs of spaceflight, the primary goal of reusable rockets, could massively propel Chinese missions to the Moon and beyond. It’s not just a matter of American prestige — it will be a matter of jurisdiction, mineral rights, and the very shape of international law concerning the use of the upper atmosphere and extraterrestrial bodies, like Mars.

This rocket launch, no matter what its purpose, was representative of the continuing conflict between China and the United States. A game of distrust, conflicting narratives, and ever-escalating tensions — onto which any number of anxieties and ideologies can be projected. Each side constructs a narrative, and the other tries to tear it down. This — is more of the same.

– Liam