The Guardian view on China’s missile launch: the arrival of a peer competitor

hether China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that can circle the globe or not, there is a convincing argument that the country has emerged as a serious strategic rival to the United States. With scores of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, China already has the ability to strike the US mainland with devastating force. 하나, the hypersonic missile test – which the Chinese say was a peaceful spacecraft launch – can be read as a warning from Beijing that it could defeat, through its technological prowess, US missile defences.

What remains largely unacknowledged is that both Washington and Beijing have been building their strategic nuclear capabilities at a rapid and potentially destabilising pace. The US plans to spend up to $1.5tn to overhaul its nuclear arsenal by rebuilding each leg of its nuclear triad – with new warheads, submarines and bombers being commissioned. China is doing the same. While Monday’s test made headlines around the world, China’s first hypersonic glide test was in 2014. The US has its own plans for such technologies. The unavoidable impression is that such efforts contribute to a dangerous arms race.

Unlike the Soviet Union, China is simultaneously an economic, technological and military challenger to the US. How this competition is managed will determine how “probable” – the word used by the former Australian prime minister and China expert Kevin Rudd – a cold war between Beijing and Washington is. Nowhere will this be more keenly felt than in Taiwan. China’s rising power has made a conquest of the island imaginable, perhaps appealing to a nationalist mood that has been cultivated by the current leadership in Beijing. For the west there is the pull of a youthful democracy threatened by a bullying, autocratic neighbour that appears intent on finally making good on a decades-long pledge to take over the island.

Whether the US will go to war in the Pacific over Taiwan was once a hypothetical question. It has recently become a more urgent one. 이번달 초, 약 150 Chinese warplanes entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone over four days. Around the same time, the US and five allies conducted naval exercises with 17 ships in an unmistakable message to Beijing.

The question in international relations is whether a country dissatisfied with the status quo will seek to change things by force. The US is moving towards a deeper relationship with Taiwan, perhaps one that will tie in strategic hi-tech industries while it imposes sanctions on mainland Chinese firms. Its top diplomat speaks of Taiwan as a “country”, a calculated snub to China’s description of it as a “renegade province”. Beijing’s suspicion is that the objective of US policy is to permanently detach Taiwan from the mainland. This might explain President Xi Jinping’s promise this month to fulfil the “complete reunification of the motherland”.

How much of a departure all this is from the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity” is not yet known. This state of uncertainty has allowed for peace to prevail as both Beijing and Taipei have been deterred from endangering the current state of affairs by the possibility of US intervention, while at the same time being assured that the other side will not unilaterally seek to change the present situation.

China’s crushing of any shred of resistance in Hong Kong, in breach of its promises to maintain the region’s freedoms, suggests a desire to return the country to its historic position as the unchallenged power in east Asia. Clashing with India in the Himalayas over contested borders and threatening Germany with repercussions for raising human rights issues also point to a dangerous hubris in Beijing. China must tread carefully; its moves so far are deepening the divide with the world’s democracies.

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