BEIJING — China said Tuesday it successfully tested a mid-course anti-missile defense system within its own territory, a move that comes amid tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s own military developments in disputed regional waters.
The defense ministry said in a brief statement on its website that Monday’s test achieved its “preset goal,” while offering no further details.
Mid-course interception involves destroying a ballistic missile while it is flying in space before re-entering the atmosphere.
The defense ministry said the test was “defensive and does not target any country.”
China is North Korea’s closest economic and diplomatic partner but has signed on to increasingly tough United Nations sanctions aimed at curbing the North’s nuclear weapons program. Despite that threat, it has adamantly opposed the deployment of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system known as THAAD in South Korea, saying it would respond with countermeasures.
Beijing has also rapidly expanded its military presence on manmade islands in the South China Sea, most of which it claims, despite rival claims from other nations. It has also repeatedly sent coast guard vessels into waters controlled by Japan around uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China claims as its own.
Given the description, Monday’s test was likely to be of the SC-19 system that was believed to have been used in knocking out a Chinese satellite in a 2007 test, said Sam Roggeveen, a senior fellow with the Sydney-based Lowy Institute international policy think tank.
However, the exercise may not have included an actual interception utilizing the missile’s kill vehicle, but might have simply been a test of the missile’s booster, Roggeveen said. He also warned against assuming that the test was aimed at the U.S., pointing instead to other regional players.
“This missile system is designed to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles, and Washington does not deploy those in the Asia-Pacific,” Roggeveen said. “On the other hand, both North Korea and India do have such missiles, so this test is more about them,” he said.
India, China’s nuclear-armed southern neighbor, has a border dispute with Beijing that resulted in a weekslong standoff last year between their armed forces. The two are also locked in an increasingly tense rivalry for influence in the Indian Ocean.
The ability to independently manufacture advanced armaments, including stealth fighters, aircraft carriers and missile defense systems, is key to China’s rise as a global military power, Roggeveen said.
“It is clear that China is striving to become a military-industrial superpower of equal standing to the U.S.,” he said.