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Beijing extends a helping hand - and its reach

By Dean Cheng - posted Tuesday, 19 January 2010

In the course of an eventful week, the People’s Republic of China has had a chance to display the full range of modern capabilities that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is acquiring.

At one end, on January 11, the Chinese announced that they had successfully engaged in a mid-course interception of a missile. While the Chinese have not been forthcoming with much information about the test, including the type of interceptor, the target, or the location of the test, the test, which has been confirmed by the US DOD, puts potential adversaries on notice that China is developing an anti-missile capability. The implications of such a development are likely to be felt not only in Washington and Taipei, which do not rely on ballistic missiles for most of their defence needs, but also New Delhi, which does.

Furthermore, China’s anti-missile test now appears to have, potentially, anti-satellite applications. The test is reported to have occurred exo-atmospherically. That, coupled with the date, January 11, three years to the day that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used their anti-satellite (ASAT) system to destroy a defunct Chinese weather satellite, suggests that this test may have been part of a larger anti-satellite program.


Hopefully, this will put an end to the speculation that the original ASAT test was the work of a rogue PLA, or engineers run amuck. Instead, it is important (and long overdue) to recognise the Chinese effort to secure space superiority is a sustained, long-standing one from which the Chinese will not be lightly dissuaded. The PLA has written a great deal about the importance of dominating space in the event of conflict. This most recent test provides further incentive to take Chinese military writings seriously.

At the other end, some 60 Chinese rescue personnel have been dispatched to Haiti to assist in rescue and relief efforts. The Chinese team is drawn from the China International Search and Rescue Team, which is a combined civilian-military unit including personnel drawn from China’s Seismological Bureau, PLA engineers, and People’s Armed Police (PAP) medical staff.

Part of the motivation for this effort is simple humanitarian impulses to assist the devastated country, as well as the desire to find fellow Chinese troops (125 Chinese peacekeepers were deployed in Haiti, and eight are among the missing). Nonetheless, the prompt deployment of Chinese personnel, even if they will be integrated into larger relief efforts, also serves as a reminder that the PLA is increasingly operating away from China’s shores, and can now even function (albeit at very minimal levels) in America’s own backyard.

The deployment also counters Taiwan (with whom Haiti maintains diplomatic relations and which has sent its own rescue team), and redresses China’s poor performance in 2004 in the wake of the Indonesia tsunami. Then, China’s response was delayed and poorly co-ordinated, despite its proximity to China’s own shores.

This deployment neatly book-ends with China’s high-end anti-missile/anti-satellite test to show that China can now both field technologically sophisticated systems and engage in low-technology, military-operations-other-than-war (MOOTW). At the same time, it also underscores China’s intention to be more of a player in international affairs, including responses to major natural disasters.

As China’s international profile continues to expand in line with its global economic interests and burgeoning military capability, further displays at both ends of the capability spectrum can be expected.

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First published by The Heritage Foundation on January 14, 2010.

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About the Author

Dean Cheng is Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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All articles by Dean Cheng

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