U.S. Dominance in Space Challenged by China’s Test
BEIJING, Jan. 19 — China’s apparent success in destroying one of its own orbiting satellites with a ballistic missile signals that it intends to contest American military supremacy in space, a realm many here consider increasingly crucial to national security.
The test of an antisatellite weapon, which the government refused to either confirm or deny today, despite widespread press coverage and diplomatic inquiries, was perceived by regional experts as China’s most provocative military action since it test-fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan more than a decade ago. Unlike the Taiwan exercise, the main intended audience this time was the United States, the sole superpower in space.
Through energetic diplomacy, generous foreign aid and a number of lengthy policy-study white papers, Chinese officials have taken pains in recent yeas to present their country in a very different light: as a new kind of global power that, unlike the United States, has only good will toward other nations.
But some analysts said the antisatellite test showed that the reality is murkier than that. China has surging national wealth, legitimate defense concerns, and an opaque military bureaucracy that may belie its promise of a “peaceful rise.”
“This is the other face of China, the hard-power side, that they usually keep well hidden,” said Chong-Pin Lin, an expert in Taiwan on China’s military. “They talk more about peace and diplomacy, but the push to develop lethal, high-tech capabilities has not slowed down at all.”
Japan, South Korea and Australia were among the countries pressing China today to explain the incident, which, if confirmed, would make China the third power to shoot down an object in space, after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
China’s foreign and defense ministries declined to comment on reports of the test, which were based on United States intelligence data. Liu Jianchao, the foreign ministry spokesman, would say only that China opposes using weapons in space. “China will not participate in any kind of arms race in outer space,” he told Reuters.
China’s rapidly modernizing military, and perhaps especially the Second Artillery forces in charge of its ballistic missile program, remains isolated and secretive, answering only to President Hu Jintao, who heads the military as well as the ruling Communist Party.
Having a weapon that can disable or destroy satellites is considered a component of China’s unofficial doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. China’s army strategists have written that in the event of armed conflict with the United States, over Taiwan for example, the Chinese military intends to rely on relatively inexpensive but highly disruptive technology to impede the better-equipped and better-trained American forces.
The Pentagon makes extensive use of satellites for military communications, intelligence, and missile guidance, and some Chinese experts have argued that damage to those satellites could hobble American forces.
Yet while China’s research into asymmetric weaponry has been well known, the apparent decision to test-fire a satellite killer came as a surprise to many analysts.
“If this is fully corroborated, it is a very significant event that is likely to recast relations between the United States and China,” said Allan Behm, a former official in Australia’s defense ministry. “This was a very sophisticated thing to do, and the willingness to do it means that we’re seeing a different level of threat.”
For the past 15 years, China’s defense expenditures have been growing by nearly 10 percent a year, adjusted for inflation. China has begun to deploy sophisticated submarines, aircraft and anti-ship missiles that the Pentagon says could have offensive uses.
Yet, with a few notable exceptions, China has avoided sharp provocations with the United States or Japan that could prompt them to pay more attention to a potential China threat.
Chinese leaders stress that they are preoccupied by domestic challenges, and intend to focus their energy and resources on economic development, a policy they say depends heavily on cross-border investment, open trade and friendly foreign relations.
The government in Beijing has denied any intention to develop space weapons, and it has sharply criticized the United States for experimenting with a space-based missile-defense system. China has assembled a coalition of Asian countries to jointly develop peaceful space-based technologies.
Last month it published and heavily promoted a major report on military strategy that emphasized its view that space must remain free of weapons.
“China is unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development, and always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind,” the paper said.
There is an element of propaganda in such pronouncements. But Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College, says that the Chinese military does in fact act cautiously when it comes to improving its strategic capabilities, like adding new long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, because it does not want to alarm the United States.
“They have talked about antisatellite weapons,” Mr. Pollack said. “But we have always thought that the threat was ambiguous, and that China probably wanted it that way. So what was the calculation to go ahead with an actual test?”
One possible motive suggested by analysts was to prod the Bush administration to negotiate a treaty to ban space weapons. Russia and China have advocated such a treaty, but President Bush rejected those calls when he authorized a new space policy that seeks to preserve America’s “freedom of action” in space.
Chinese officials have warned that an arms race could ensue if Washington does not change course.
At a United Nations conference on the uses of space held last June in Vienna, a Chinese foreign ministry official, Tang Guoqiang, called the policies of “certain nations” disconcerting.
“Outer space is the common heritage of mankind, and weaponization of outer space is bound to trigger off an arms race, thus rendering outer space a new arena for military confrontation,” he said, according to an official Chinese transcript of his remarks.
Even so, Mr. Pollack said, if China hoped that demonstrating a new weapon of this kind would prompt a positive response in Washington, it probably miscalculated.
“Very frankly, many people in Washington will find that this validates the view of a China threat,” Mr. Pollack said. “It could well end up backfiring, and forcing the U.S. to take new steps to counter China.”
Other analysts said the test may have more to do with proving a technology that has been under development for many years than with Cold War-style negotiating tactics.
They said that China maintains a minimal nuclear arsenal, though it could inflict enough damage on an enemy to deter any attempt at a preemptive strike. But the increasing sophistication of American missile interceptors, which are linked to satellite surveillance, may threaten the viability of China’s limited nuclear arsenal, some here have argued.
That may be why the Second Artillery decided to demonstrate that it had the means to protect fixed missile sites and to ensure that China could retaliate to any attack, by taking out American satellites.
At the annual Zhuhai military fair, held last November, the Guangdong Information Times and several other state-run media outlets carried a short interview with an unnamed military official, who boasted that China had “already completely ensured that it has second-strike capability.” The article said China could do so because it was able to destroy satellites in space.
Earlier this month, Lt. Gen Michael Mapes of the United States Army testified before Congress that China and Russia are working on systems to hit American satellites with lasers or missiles. And over the summer, Donald M. Kerr, director of the National Reconaissance Office, told reporters that China had used a ground-based laser to “paint,” or illuminate, an American satellite, a possible first step to using lasers to destroy satellites.
“China is becoming more assertive in just about every military field,” said Mr. Behm, the Australian defense expert. “It is not going to concede that the U.S. can be the hegemon in space forever.”