Over the last few years Beijing has therefore dedicated considerable resources to developing capabilities that might enable the PLA to target the US’s Indo-Pacific-based assets and facilities and evade US missile defenses. The process has accelerated as the US has expanded its defenses in the region. Since 2014, the US has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea and Guam. US missile defense systems, however, remained a stumbling block for Beijing, as it lacked ways to evade them.
HGVs like the one that was reportedly tested over the summer could be the solution. HGVs can carry either nuclear or conventional payloads. And although slower than ballistic missiles as they approach target, their greater maneuverability and lower flight path makes them harder to predict and counter. Theoretically, this means they could penetrate missile defense systems.
Beijing’s quest to achieve “mutual vulnerability” will accelerate the emerging arms race
China’s new HGVs do not represent an entirely new threat to the United States or other countries. Beijing has long had the ability to strike against the US and against US assets in the Indo-Pacific. Nor do they substantially change the deterrence dynamics between the two or indicate a change in Beijing’s nuclear doctrine.
However, China’s HGVs are likely to increase tensions in the Indo-Pacific and globally, and may contribute to shifting the balance of power in the region. Just as US expansion of its missile defenses led to Beijing’s development of HGVs, China’s new capabilities are likely to stoke the already existing arms race, as other countries try to catch up with or surpass the PLA’s new capabilities.
China’s threat perceptions also continue to rise. Beijing sees an increasingly complex international environment that could thwart its ambitions to reclaim China’s position as a global power. China’s deteriorating relationship with the US, growing instability in the Indo-Pacific, and Beijing’s fears of a Western coalition to confront China and contain its rise will only solidify these concerns.
We should therefore expect the PLA to continue with its military modernization and to expand its conventional and nuclear arsenals. The HGV tests are only the latest step in this process of military buildup. In recent months, satellite images have also shown two new missile silo fields under construction in Western China which could house hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles. China’s nuclear arsenal is still dwarfed by the United States’ (and Russia’s),4 but the US department of Defense estimates that the PLA may have up to 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and at least 1,000 by 2030.5 In Beijing’s eyes, the PLA is simply working to protect its ability to retaliate, which is seen as the key to maintaining US-China strategic stability.
Against the background of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and fears that a conflict may break out in the next few years, Beijing’s new capabilities could change the strategic calculations for many countries involved. China’s ultimate goal appears to be mutual vulnerability and nuclear stalemate with the US, thus taking nuclear strikes off the table in case of war. The balance of power in such a situation would come down to conventional capabilities. And in that area, especially in a local conflict in the Indo-Pacific, the PLA has a clear geographical advantage. Beijing might then be emboldened to decide to launch military action against Taiwan sooner than expected.