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China Advances Ballistic Missile Capability

China's missiles are carried through Beijing's Tiananmen Gate during a military parade marking China's 60th anniversary in Beijing, China.
China's missiles are carried through Beijing's Tiananmen Gate during a military parade marking China's 60th anniversary in Beijing, China.

China is making some of its missiles more powerful, as it asserts its sovereignty over disputed waterways in the South and East China.

A U.S. Defense Department report says China is upgrading its missile capabilities through placing multiple miniaturized nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. China has had the capability to do this since the 1990s, and its recent move to make some of its missiles more powerful has raised concerns of a regional arms race in Asia.

“This is one of the nasty indirect effects of nuclear weapons modernization, that it has a tendency to trigger these action/reaction patterns in future modernizations," explained Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. "So one has to be really careful. When you ask any of these countries, none of it is very dramatic, and none of it has very significant importance, but it adds up over time.”

According to the Pentagon, China re-engineered DF-5 missiles, of which it has 20 throughout the country. Equipping the missiles with multiple warheads makes them harder to intercept. China now has the ability to launch more than 40 warheads on the United States, and its increase in military capabilities has raised doubts of China’s claim that its military spending is meant only for defense.

Wang Dong, a professor of international relations at Peking University, counters that China’s military still falls way behind other countries in technology and capability.

“China’s strategic capability is actually no match for the U.S. or Russia’s," he said.

The move to increase missile capabilities comes as China shows increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, which is claimed by several Asian nations. The United States has said it will send ships and surveillance planes to the region in response to the territorial disputes over the potentially resource rich waterway.

“China in its land reclamation activities has undertaken what I have termed in a report issued earlier, an excising of the heart of maritime Southeast Asia," said Carl Thayer, a Professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "And in fact the land reclamation which was going on on seven islands has stopped on four because they have completed that phase for the moment and now they are building infrastructure. Three story buildings, a one thousand meter air strip.”

The technology to equip missiles with multiple warheads was limited in the SALT II treaty, signed in 1979. American and Russian submarines still carry missiles with multiple warheads; France and Britain also have missiles with this capability.