Earlier this week, China test-fired a ballistic missile. The practical significance of the test is minimal; it does little, if anything, to change the regional balance of power. Its timing, on the other hand, could not be worse. The launch sends the wrong message to every government with interests in the area. This needless muscle-flexing only ratchets up tensions in East Asia. It is not the act of a responsible government that wishes to be taken seriously.

China’s Xinhua news agency confirmed that the Dongfeng (East Wind) 31, an intercontinental surface-to-surface strategic missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead 8,000 kilometers, had been successfully tested. Reportedly, the first tests of the missile were carried out in 1995. Western intelligence agencies had expected the launch sometime this year; it is part of the Chinese military’s ongoing modernization program.

Although the launch comes during tensions between Beijing and Taipei that were triggered by statements by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, it is unlikely that the two are linked. A long-range missile poses no particular threat to Taiwan; and the test itself took place far from the Taiwan Strait to ensure that it would not be mistaken for an actual attack. Far more worrisome are reports that mainland military forces have been put on the highest level of alert. Although the actual readiness levels of the forces are disputed, military sources confirm that both governments have stepped up the number of sorties flown by their air forces in the waterway, a mere 220 km across at its widest point. The danger is that an accident or miscalculation could occur and things would quickly get out of hand. Last week’s seizure by the Chinese Navy of a Taiwanese freighter supplying islands near the mainland, for example, could have been a trigger.

Nor is it likely that the saber-rattling made any positive impression in the United States, which is the most likely target of an intercontinental missile. The Dongfeng 31 is China’s first mobile missile, but it will have no real impact on the strategic balance. Chinese weapons are generations behind that of the U.S. and the U.S. arsenal outnumbers that of China by about 35:1.

Instead, China’s crude posturing will stiffen the spine of Tai
wan’s supporters in the U.S. Congress. The U.S. announced this week, for example, that it plans to sell Taiwan E-2T early-warning radar aircraft and $550 million worth of spare parts for F-16 fighter jets. The test also picks at the wound opened by the Cox report, which detailed alleged Chinese nuclear espionage. The depth of the sentiment was captured by a conservative U.S. analyst, who noted that “The American taxpayer deserves royalties from the warhead to the solid-fuel rocket motor.”

Beijing’s seeming indifference to the consequences of this week’s launch is most disturbing. After all, at this very moment, the U.S., Japan and South Korea are trying to dissuade North Korea from conducting its own missile test. While distinctions can be made between Chinese and North Korean tests — the Chinese test was conducted on its own territory and it has a history of such launches — they can easily be dismissed. Pyongyang has argued, apparently with Beijing’s support, that such tests are a sovereign right. China’s launch certainly underscores that assertion and undercuts the case for holding back. And while Japan’s principal focus is Pyongyang, there is equal dismay in South Asia, where missile proliferation is a growing concern.

In a word, Beijing has been irresponsible. While most governments in the region are doing their best to downplay the significance of the test-firing, the simple truth is it increases tensions throughout Asia. The issue is not the military dimension of the test, but China’s seeming disregard for every other nation’s concerns. It is as if Beijing acted in a vacuum. It demands that other nation’s respect its sensitivities at the very time that it is ignoring those of its neighbors. This leads to a cycle of action and reaction, one that was all too evident during the Cold War. This cycle assumes a life and dynamism all its own.

No nation can demand absolute security without creating insecurities in its neighbors. China, like the Soviet Union during the 50 years of the Cold War, does not seem to understand that. While modernization of the People’s Liberation Army has been a long standing goal of the Chinese government, it must be done in a way that does not make the region more unstable. Beijing seems to have confused its military arsenal with its national security — a simple, but dangerous mistake.

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