China is warning that it will be forced to stoke up a dangerously escalating arms race in Asia in response to Japanese plans to build a missile-defence system designed to protect the country from North Korean attacks.
Japan said last week that it planned to purchase Patriot PAC3 interceptors, which are meant to shoot down incoming short and medium-range ballistic missiles, and to step up work on Aegis - a US-led sea-based system to protect ships and troops from ballistic missile attack.
Beijing fears that these acquisitions, though targeted at North Korea's rogue nuclear programme, will threaten the balance of power. "Japan's new military investments are going to transform the military balance in the region," a Chinese diplomat said. "China will have no choice but to respond by enhancing its own capabilities." Jiang Yu, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, described Japan's plans as "irresponsible".
Experts fear that other countries will respond as well as China. India, for example, could grow its own missile arsenal in response to a Chinese move and Pakistan would soon follow.
"China depends heavily on both conventional and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to offset the technological weaknesses of its armed forces," said Ashley Tellis, a US strategic expert, "so a more robust Japanese missile defence system is a real threat to its clout."
Japan is the second Chinese adversary to invest in US missile defence systems. In January, the US administration said anti-ballistic missile defence equipment would form part of an $6.4 billion (£4.1 billion) arms sale to Taiwan.
China, unlike the other four original nuclear-weapons states, has been rapidly expanding its much-smaller nuclear arsenal - by over 25 per cent in the last five years, Pentagon estimates claim.
Much of the expansion has been driven by fears that new US ballistic missile defences could undermine the deterrent value of Beijing's nuclear forces. Experts estimate that China deploys some 130 land-based nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, each capable of delivering a single warhead. Missiles like the medium-range Dong Feng-3A and DF-4 are in the processes of being replaced the more modern DF 21.
The new DF-41 missile that China is developing is expected to be capable of carrying multiple independently-targeted warheads, which are also hard to intercept.
China is simultaneously expanding its fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which can lurk underwater for extended periods of time and are almost undetectable.
The Snooper Report.
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