China's test of a hypersonic missile in space is a "game-changer" that should fundamentally alter the US's calculations about Beijing's military leverage, experts have warned.
Over the weekend, it emerged that the Chinese military in August secretly launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle into space, which flew around the globe through low-orbit space before returning to Earth.
While the missile reportedly missed its target by about two dozen miles, the test shows China has made rapid progress on the lightning-fast weapons and is far more advanced than US intelligence officials had realised, according to the Financial Times, which broke the story.
"We have no idea how they did this," the FT quoted one official as saying.
Countries including the US, UK, Russia and North Korea have all been working on developing hypersonic missiles, which have the advantages of fast flight – travelling at five times the speed of sound or more – and increased manoeuvrability that can make them very difficult to counter.
They also fly at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles, meaning they can potentially reach targets faster.
Drew Thompson, a former American defence department official with responsibility for China, said the test "really should change US calculations".
"Especially if more tests improve the accuracy, establish its credibility, then I think it is a game changer in a way that little else has really shifted the balance," said Mr Thompson, who is also a visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
"Once it works, once it's credible, it negates US missile defences and it makes the US vulnerable and that has to fundamentally change US strategic calculations about its leverage and China's ability to hold at risk major cities throughout the United States."
China's ministry of defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
Liu Pengyu, the spokesman at China's embassy in Washington, told the FT that China always pursued a military policy that was "defensive in nature" and that its military development did not target any country.
"We don't have a global strategy and plans of military operations like the US does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries," Mr Liu said.
"In contrast, the US has in recent years been fabricating excuses like 'the China threat' to justify its arms expansion and development of hypersonic weapons. This has directly intensified [the] arms race in this category and severely undermined global strategic stability."
The US has recently pivoted its defence and intelligence operations to focus more on China. Earlier this month, the CIA announced the creation of a new China Mission Center that would bring more resources to studying the country and better position officers around the world to analyze its activities.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the FT he would not comment on the specifics of the report but added: "We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities China continues to pursue, capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond. That is one reason why we hold China as our number one pacing challenge."
There is also an increased international emphasis on combatting China's growing military might. Last month, the US, UK and Australia announced a new international security alliance, dubbed AUKUS. Although it did not mention China specifically, it was widely interpreted as being aimed at Beijing.
"If there was any doubt about the importance of #AUKUS and democratic nations other strategic alliances to counter a malign Communist #China, now equipped with globe circumnavigating hypersonic nuclear missile capabilities..." tweeted Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley.
Last month, Frank Kendall, the US air force secretary, warned that Beijing had made huge advances in hypersonic weapons, including the "potential for global strikes … from space".
He suggested China was developing something along the lines of the USSR's Soviet-era Fractional Orbital Bombardment System.
"If you use that kind of an approach, you don't have to use a traditional ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] trajectory. It's a way to avoid defences and missile warning systems," said Mr Kendall.
The hypersonic test comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington, including over recent record intrusions by Chinese military planes into Taiwan's air defence identification zone that the US has condemned as "provocative" and "destabilising" activity.
On Sunday, it emerged that the United States and Canada had sent warships through the Taiwan Strait last week, prompting a furious reaction from the Chinese military.
"The United States and Canada colluded to provoke and stir up trouble... seriously jeopardising peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait," said China's People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theatre Command.
"Taiwan is part of Chinese territory."