China on Monday said it recently tested a hypersonic "vehicle" and not a nuclear-capable hypersonic "missile" as reported by a leading British newspaper which also said that the missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles.
The Financial Times reported on Sunday that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.
Five people familiar with the test said that the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target, the FT report said.
The missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles, the report said, quoting three people who briefed it on the intelligence. But two said the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realised, according to the report.
Asked for his reaction to the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing here that a test of a hypersonic vehicle was carried out.
"It is a vehicle not a missile," Zhao said.
"As we understand this test, it is just a routine space vehicle test to verify the repeated use of technology of the vehicle.
"This is of great significance to reducing the cost and can also provide an affordable and cheap return means for the peaceful use of space for humanity," he said.
Zhao said that many other countries and companies are conducting similar tests.
"The remains of the burnt vehicle have fallen into the waters of the high sea. China will work with the rest of the world to make efforts for the peaceful use of the space," the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
He reiterated that the test, which was carried out in August, involved a vehicle, not a missile.
"My answer is a big yes," Zhao said when asked if it was a vehicle, not a missile.
The US, Russia and China are all developing hypersonic weapons, including glide vehicles that are launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth under their own momentum, according to the FT report.
The missile flies at five times the speed of sound, slower than a ballistic missile. But they do not follow the fixed parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile and are manoeuvrable, making them harder to track, the report said.
US military officials in recent months have warned about China's growing nuclear capabilities, particularly after the release of satellite imagery that showed it was building more than 200 intercontinental missile silos.
China is not bound by any arms-control deals and has been unwilling to engage the US in talks about its nuclear arsenal and policy, the report added.
Meanwhile, the state-run Global Times, in an editorial, said that it was meaningless to discuss the credibility of the FT report.
"But it is important to note the unstoppable trend that China is narrowing the gap with the US in some key military technologies as China is continuously developing its economic and technological strength.
"China doesn't need to engage in an "arms race" with the US - it is capable of weakening the US' overall advantages over China by developing military power at its own pace," the Global Times editorial said.
The US is very concerned about China's nuclear development. There is no doubt that China has no plans to build a nuclear force of the same size as that of the US, the editorial noted.
"In other words, we have no intention of launching a "nuclear arms race" with the US. However, 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 and its idea of using nuclear forces to make up for the weakness that US' conventional forces cannot crush China," it added.