The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts will confess to some uncertainty in trying to interpret the relative balance of military power between the United States and China. It is not hard to find Beltway commentary and analysis suggesting that China poses an imminent threat to U.S. interests as well as U.S. military superiority. That said, it is also relatively easy to find scholarly analysis that pooh-poohs China’s ability to play technological catch-up to the U.S. military.

This uncertainty was foremost in my mind when I read the scoop from the Financial Times’s Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille about China’s surprising summer missile test: “China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding toward its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.” It should be noted that other countries including North Korea, Russia, and the United States have developed

According to the five sources for the article, the missile missed its intended target by approximately two dozen miles but nevertheless showed significant technical progress compared with U.S. intelligence expectations. Hypersonic missiles are fast (though not as fast as ballistic missiles) and are adept at evading antimissile systems. Reports suggest that Chinese officials want to use AI systems to boost the accuracy of these missiles. U.S. officials are also concerned a the prospect of China launching these missiles over the South Pole; most U.S. early detection systems are focused on launches from the north.

China has denied the report, but the FT article was juicy enough to rocket around my social media feed for the next week. The more I read about it, the less curious I am about the strategic implications and the more curious I am about the timing of this article.

The strategic implications are serious. This action is consistent with China’s other moves designed to ensure Chinese nuclear forces retain deterrent power relative to U.S. superiority in both nuclear weapons and defenses against nuclear strikes. A Global Times editorial from last week makes this pretty plain: “China will certainly improve the quality of its nuclear deterrence to ensure that the US completely eliminates the idea of nuclear blackmail against China at any critical moment.”

Hyperbolic rhetoric about blackmail aside, one can understand why China wants a capable nuclear deterrent. That could, in theory, reduce China’s insecurity and reduce the risk of overreactions. On the other hand, that “critical moment” language, combined with the editorial’s caustic rhetoric about “the weakness [of] US conventional forces,” is not reassuring in the slightest. It is possible that the purpose of these moves is to ensure that any PRC military move against Taiwan does not lead to a U.S. nuclear threat. When Caitlin Talmadge warns that “it looks a lot like China wants to be sure that US can’t use nuclear weapons to coerce China in a conventional crisis or war that China might start or stumble into,” I sit up and take notice.

So, yes, my concern about Chinese intentions has been elevated. But so are my suspicions of this FT article. As the New York Times’s David Sanger noted last week, the “cold war” talk about China is equally problematic: “Governments that plunge into a Cold War mind-set can exaggerate every conflict, convinced that they are part of a larger struggle. They can miss opportunities for cooperation, as the United States and China did in battling Covid-19, and may yet on the climate.”

Cold wars can also incentivize hawks to use well-timed leaks to undercut dovish members of a foreign policy team. As CNN’s Natasha Bertrand reported over the weekend, “China’s test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile has given new fuel to critics of President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda to scale back America’s nuclear arsenal.” She goes on to note that “news of the launch is coming to light publicly as the administration nears the end of its nuclear posture review. Biden’s national security team has been working toward a policy of increased restraint and more limited spending on nuclear modernization and production.” This news arrives as one of Biden’s nonproliferation experts has left the Pentagon and another faces GOP opposition for confirmation.

It is worth reading Bertrand’s article in full to see who is quoted sounding hawkish and who is not. GOP congressional staffers sound pretty hawkish. Nonproliferation experts do not. And between these two communities, I tend to trust the nonproliferation experts more.

The question of how to approach a rising China (though maybe not rising for much longer) remains a fundamental foreign policy debate on which reasonable people can disagree. One cannot dismiss the concerns of China hawks out of hand. But I can wonder if reports about the hypersonic missile test are being leaked and hyped for reasons of bureaucratic politics and not national security.