China successfully tests missile interceptor

China conducts missile system test following US-Taiwan arms sales. Optimistic poll raises hopes for Afghanistan. Israel plans new fence along Egyptian border. Iranian scientist killed in bomb attack. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
12 January 2010

On Monday, China declared it had successfully tested new military technology capable of intercepting missiles mid-flight. China’s state news agency Xinhua reported that the test occurred within China’s territory and that the interceptors are purely defensive, and are not being targeted at any country.

The United States confirmed detection of a collision between two missiles, indicating the test achieved its objective. A Pentagon spokesperson stated that the US has asked China for more information concerning “the purpose for conducting this interception as well as China’s intentions and plans to pursue future types of intercepts”.

The missile interceptor test comes in the wake of recently approved US-Taiwan arms sales, including Patriot ‘PAC-3’ missile defence systems. During the past week, Beijing has strongly and repeatedly protested against this arms deal, saying it infringed Chinese security interests and infernal affairs, because the issue of Taiwan is ‘related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity'. China urged Washington to reconsider the deal, and warned of ‘severe consequences’ for US-China relations if the US chose otherwise. The US defence department denied any connection between the Chinese test and arms sales to Taiwan.

The openSecurity verdict: Despite the American denial of a link between the arms sales and the missile test and China’s assurances of its defencive nature, last week’s vehement Chinese objections against the arms deal suggest a direct connection exists. Policymakers in Beijing are extremely sensitive about US actions with regard to Taiwan, and the missile test represented a straightforward instrument to signal displeasure to the Obama administration, constituting an attempt to influence its Taiwan policy. Whether missile defence systems are of a defensive or offensive capacity seems a moot point, since such systems would be equally useful to guard against retaliation in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Ever since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, China has continued to view the autonomous Republic of China (ROK) on the island of Taiwan as part of its territory, while Taiwan has claimed to be the legitimate government of the entire Chinese mainland. Although Taiwan now possesses de facto independence from the mainland China, and its ambitions to regain control of China have waned, Beijing has never recognized this fact, and insists it is an integral part of China.

To deter Taipei from declaring full independence, China has built up a wide variety of military capabilities, including, importantly, a considerable amount of ballistic missiles trained on the Taiwanese island. However, China reasons that US missile defences, like the Patriot system in this arms deal, diminish the leverage its military forces give it over to Taiwan, thereby destabilizing the regional balance. Because of this, Beijing is often seen reproaching the US for meddling in the issue of Taiwan, which China considers as a domestic matter.

As a counter to the American support to Taiwan and other states in the region, China has been developing new weapon systems at great speed. According to the Chinese defence budget, which is widely estimated to be lower than China’s real military expenditures, spending rose by 15.3 percent in 2009 to 69 billion dollars.

Yesterday’s test is a prime example of China’s new technological prowess, since building a missile interceptor which works effectively is not an easy feat. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is playing a catch-up game, since despite having the largest armed forces in the world, it is generally considered to be ten to twenty years behind the US military on the technological front. Both the US and the European Union have arms embargoes in place against China (although the EU has been discussing lifting the embargo), which forces China to rely on developing its domestic military-industrial complex, and also on technologies and arms it can procure from Russia.

Some of the PLA’s other research programmes include anti-aircraft systems aimed at hitting stealth aircraft and disabling cruise missiles and precision-guided weapons. However, because military developments in China are obscured by secrecy, public uncertainly about Beijing’s capabilities is significant. This secrecy makes it hard for the US and its Asian allies – like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – to assess China’s true intentions. Hence, although all China and the United States have a joint interest in friendly relations and economic engagement, in all likelihood military competition and arms races will remain a point of friction for the foreseeable future.

Optimistic poll raises hopes for Afghanistan

Afghans’ hopes for the future of their country have increased significantly and they support the presence of NATO troops, according to a poll carried out by the BBC, ABC news and Germany’s ARD.

The survey of 1,500 Afghans in December 2009, saw 70 percent of respondents stating that their country is moving in the right direction, up from 40 percent last year. Support for NATO forces increased to 62 percent, with almost the same number of Afghans supporting the recent ‘surge’ of extra troops. General Stanley McChrystal, the alliance’s supreme commander in Afghanistan, told ABC he believed the troop increase was working, and is turning the tide against the Taliban.

The Afghan people’s views about president Hamid Karzai also became more favourable, with 72 percent rating him as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, despite last year’s disputed presidential election and allegations of corruption. Only 6 percent responded that they would prefer a Taliban-run government. The rise in optimism is at least partly due to better living conditions, with Afghans citing better job prospects and economic opportunities.

Violence continues nonetheless, and five NATO soldiers were killed on Monday. According to a statement by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), three US servicemen died battling insurgents in southern Afghanistan, while a British soldier was killed by a blast in Helmand province. In addition, a French soldier died in a clash in the east of the country, while another was badly wounded and remains in critical condition. Since the beginning of the new year, the death toll for foreign soldiers in Afghanistan already totals fourteen casualties.

Israel plans new fence along Egyptian border

Israeli officials yesterday provided details about the surveillance fence that will be constructed along the border with Egypt, claiming that the barrier’s main objective is to keep out African migrants and illegal workers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the plan “a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel.” In addition to keeping out illegal migrants, he said the fence would also contribute to security by blocking “infiltrators and terrorists” from entering the country. Netanyahu insisted the plan will not keep out war refugees, and would “remain open” to those with a genuine claim.

The barrier is projected to cost about 250 million dollars, and will close a part of Israel’s southern border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. According to Israeli police, between 100 and 200 African migrants cross the Sinai and arrive in Israel each week. The fence will contain radar equipment to detect infiltrators, and will be composed of two sections, one running down from Gaza for about fifty kilometres, and another going north from Eliat, at the Red Sea, for about the same distance.

Israel has already constructed a contentious barrier around the Palestinian territories on the West Bank which it claims has led to a massive drop in infiltration and attacks staged in Israeli controlled territory. It is also in the process of building an underground steel wall along the Gaza strip border, to curb smuggling into Gaza.

Iranian scientist killed in bomb attack

On Tuesday, Iranian nuclear scientist Massoud Ali Mohammadi was assassinated by a bomb blast, when explosives rigged to a motorbike outside his home were triggered by remote control. State media quickly blamed the attack on US and Israeli agents, talking of a “a terrorist operation by counterrevolutionary agents affiliated with the global arrogance”, accusing foreign nations of stirring up unrest. The media called Mohammadi a staunch supporter of the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian regime.

It was unclear whether Mohammadi, who was a professor at Tehran state university, was connected to Iran’s hugely controversial nuclear programme, which is strongly opposed by the United States, European countries, and Israel. Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran's chief prosecutor, stated that “so far there have no arrests of those behind the incident”.

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