China says it has tested an advanced missile interception system in a move that serves as a reminder of the rapidly progressing technological upgrade of its military capabilities.
A one-sentence statement via Xinhua, the official news agency, said only that the country had “tested a mid-course missile interception technology on domestic territory”, that the launch met its expected objective and was defensive in nature and not aimed at any country.
The test is expected to strain relations with Washington again at a time when there has been growing criticism from Beijing against arms sales by the US to Taiwan.
Last week, the US defence department announced it had awarded a contract for advanced Patriot Pac-3 anti-missile equipment destined for Taiwan to Lockheed Martin.
In response, Beijing released a series of warnings and demands for the US to stop weapons sales to the self-ruled island that China claims as part of its territory.
Together with the terse announcement on the missile interception test, Xinhua ran a lengthy commentary on Monday night warning that a continuation of arms sales to Taiwan would damage bilateral ties greatly.
The latest bickering comes shortly after China fully restored military-to-military ties with the US following a partial suspension in October 2008 when Washington took the last step in implementing Taiwan arms sales. At the time the Bush administration had notified Congress that it intended to move ahead on a number of weapons sales the US government had first agreed to sell to the island as early as April 2001.
Weapons experts said Beijing’s strong reaction over what they called a minor step was unusual.
“The real issue is the surprising noise this contract announcement has generated from Beijing, as they have already acted out their displeasure on this sale with the suspension of military-to-military exchanges last year,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, a lobby group.
“The Chinese recognise the vacuum Mr Obama has created with another long delay in notifications – namely the Black Hawks [helicopters], remaining Pac-3s and several smaller deals – and see it as weakness.”
Observers of cross-strait relations said Beijing was trying to exploit the detente between Taipei and Beijing to achieve a reduction in US arms sales to the island to which Beijing has long claimed Washington was committed.
“They believe they can fight a limited action now and spook the Obama administration into doing much less than required during its term in office,” said Mr Hammond-Chambers.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said on her way to an Asia trip that the US and China had a “mature relationship” that would not “go off the rails when we have differences of opinion”. “We will provide defensive arms for Taiwan,” Mrs Clinton said. She also said that as China rose, the presence of the US in the region was desired as a guarantor of security.
Chinese defence experts denied a link between the missile interception test and the Taiwan issue.