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What China’s New Missile Test Means

Beijing has played its latest test off as a space mission, but a more dangerous competition is being launched.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A Long March rocket carries the Shenzhou 12 to orbit.
A Long March rocket, reportedly used in an August missile test, carries the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft and a crew of three astronauts to orbit on June 17. GREG BAKER/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: China denies hypersonic orbital missile test, Zalmay Khalilzad resigns as U.S. Afghan envoy, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ecuador.

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China Denies Testing New Missile

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: China denies hypersonic orbital missile test, Zalmay Khalilzad resigns as U.S. Afghan envoy, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ecuador.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

China Denies Testing New Missile

China has rejected a report from the Financial Times that described the test launch of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that entered orbit before reaching its final destination.

The missile technology, more accurately known as a fractional orbital bombardment system, marks the latest advance in China’s weaponry as Russia and the United States both pursue faster and stealthier weapons systems.

In denying the launch on Monday, China’s foreign ministry said a “space vehicle,” not a missile, was tested. That explanation may only amount to semantics as the August launch reportedly involved the deployment of what’s known as a glide vehicle, which cruises down from space after launch to hit its target.

The development has already led to a response from China hawks in Congress, with Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher calling for U.S. divestment from China in the areas where military and civil technology overlap to slow China’s progress.

So why are China and Russia pursuing this technology? To make sure the logic of nuclear deterrence holds, East Asia Nonproliferation Program director Jeffrey Lewis summed up in Foreign Policy on Monday: “If the Americans hit us with everything they have, how many of our nuclear weapons will survive to retaliate? How many of those will get through U.S. missile defenses? That’s it.”

Lewis continues: “If the answer for the foreseeable future is enough, then great. But if it’s not, then Moscow and Beijing have to do something about that.”

Before its capabilities pack a real punch, Beijing’s military planners must first work on accuracy. The glide vehicle is reported to have missed its target by more than 20 miles. That’s still far ahead of the United States, whose Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, another type of glide vehicle, failed two separate flight tests over the summer.

Even without the development of advanced new missiles designed to evade U.S. defenses, some existing ones are already capable of getting through. In test scenarios of its long-range missile defense system, U.S. forces have successfully intercepted 12 out of 19 ballistic missile attempts since 1999.

That spotty hit rate has likely spurred the development of a new “next-generation” interceptor, set to debut on U.S. shores in 2027 or 2028 at a total cost of nearly $18 billion. A U.S. satellite network to monitor missile launches is expected to be up and running by 2025.

If, as Lewis writes, the “threat of mutual annihilation forever” is too delicate and dangerous a balance to strike, the Biden administration has alternatives. Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, laid out some options in June, ranging from a new U.S.-China bilateral nuclear security dialogue to an outright stockpile freeze while Russia and the United States reduce their much larger arsenals.

What We’re Following Today

Blinken in Ecuador. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Ecuador for a two-day visit, which includes meetings with Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso and Foreign Minister Mauricio Montalvo. Blinken’s visit comes a day after Lasso declared a state of emergency across the country to deal with a sharp increase in drug-related violence. Lasso replaced Defense Minister Fernando Donoso with retired Gen. Luis Hernandez on Monday following deadly riots across the country’s prison system that has led to the deaths of 238 inmates this year alone.

Russia-NATO rift deepens. Russia suspended its diplomatic mission to NATO Monday as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the alliance was not interested in equitable dialogue. The move marks a new low after NATO expelled Russian diplomats earlier this month for working as “undeclared Russian intelligence officers at the Brussels-based office. Lavrov said NATO officials could contact his country’s Belgian Embassy for any “urgent matters” from now on.

Khalilzad resigns. Thomas West begins his first day as the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan following the resignation of his boss, Zalmay Khalilzad, on Monday. In his resignation letter to Blinken, Khalilzad said he made the decision now that the United States is “entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.” In a separate development, the Biden administration’s most recent policy decisions in Afghanistan—including its withdrawal from Kabul—will be the subject of an internal investigation by the State Department’s inspector general, Politico reported on Monday.

Keep an Eye On

The next Czech government. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis may be given the powers of the presidency if the health condition of hospitalized President Milos Zeman does not improve, meaning Babis will have to choose his replacement as prime minister after his ANO party lost parliamentary elections earlier this month. Babis is expected to name Petr Fiala, the head of the Together coalition, as the next government leader.

The Biden effect? Approval ratings of U.S. leadership around the world have increased substantially since Joe Biden became U.S. president, according to a new report from Gallup; 36 out of 46 countries surveyed saw an increase in U.S. approval by 10 percentage points or more, with Portugal seeing the largest swing, a 52-point increase between 2020 and 2021. Just three countries now have a lower approval of U.S. leadership: Russia, Serbia, and Benin.

Odds and Ends

The land of The Lord of the Rings has turned against its most famous wizard after 23 years of paying him to “provide acts of wizardry” to the general public. Christchurch City Council had given Ian Brackenbury Channell​, known simply as the Wizard, roughly $11,500 per year since 1998 as an honorarium for his help in promoting the city, a relationship that has now ended. The Wizard’s termination by the council has been tied to recent misogynistic comments as well as the council’s new plans to promote the city.

The Wizard has his own suspicions. “It’s just they don’t like me because they are boring old bureaucrats and everyone likes me and no one likes them,” he said.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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