A sizable group of American commentators, concentrated in the arms-control community, in effect blamed the Bush administration for China’s anti-satellite missile test last month. Critics depicted the test as an attempt to goad Washington into negotiations towards a treaty banning the deployment of weaponry in space. The administration has long resisted a ban, deeming it premature and unnecessary. In arms-control proponents’ view, Beijing flexed its new capability using a ground-launched interceptor to bring down an old Chinese weather satellite to show Washington how destructive an outer-space arms race would be for this country: The United States relies on orbiting satellites to sustain its economic and military primacy.
Ten days ago Beijing repeated its call for a space treaty. Call it an exercise in coercive diplomacy.
Though plausible, the arms controllers’ version of events is probably wrong. Such an accord would lock in the United States’ current superiority — and, as a corollary, Chinese inferiority — in this critical domain. Influential Chinese voices maintain that the United States is poised to develop space weaponry, if indeed it hasn’t already done so. They beseech China to keep pace. In this vein, a senior colonel from China’s Academy of Military Science told the just-concluded Davos World Economic Forum that “Outer space is going to be weaponized in our lifetime.” One Chinese delegate at a conference I took part in last summer proclaimed that the U.S. military had already deployed fighter spacecraft.
Moreover, the anti-satellite test seemingly took the Chinese Foreign Ministry by surprise. Ministry officials professed ignorance when first confronted with evidence of the test. And it’s doubtful they would endorse an act that threatened to undo their carefully wrought “soft-power” diplomacy, which portrays China as an intrinsically non-threatening nation. So much for the notion of an orchestrated Chinese diplomatic campaign.
But what motivates China’s military space program, if not arms control? Taiwan is the most immediate priority. If Beijing opts for military action, it must deter or defeat U.S. naval intervention in the Taiwan Strait. As they gaze seaward and skyward, Chinese thinkers have embraced the concept of the “assassin’s mace,” which envisions negating a superior enemy’s advantages through a single, sharp blow, the kind of blow that might be struck by anti-satellite weapons. Its appraisal of the 1990-91 Gulf War showed Beijing that space would represent an Achilles’ heel for the U.S. military should Americans come to depend on gee-whiz technology.
Space warfare represents the high-altitude counterpart to Chinese naval strategy in the waters surrounding Taiwan, which leverages certain niche capabilities, mines and stealthy submarines to deny superior U.S. Navy forces access to these waters. Similarly, the ability to knock out U.S. satellites would boost Beijing’s chances of deterring or defeating U.S. intervention in the Strait. Chinese warfighters believe and U.S. military officials privately agree that satellites will be crucial to U.S. operations in any cross-strait contingency. Detecting, tracking, and targeting enemy assets are nearly unthinkable without sensors and communications assets overhead. The pinpoint accuracy of precision arms such as Tomahawk cruise missiles would be unattainable without Global Positioning System satellites.
But Taiwan isn’t the only rationale for China’s military space program. Chinese strategists have begun looking beyond a Taiwan contingency, and what they see spurs them on to even greater exertions in space. Beijing regards the seas and skies adjacent to China’s coasts as a “commons” through which commerce, shipments of raw materials and military power can flow freely. A rising China is increasingly reluctant to entrust the security of this international commons to America’s uncertain goodwill. Top leaders’ desire for some control over nearby seas and skies, including space, the high frontier of the commons, is driving Chinese military strategy.
Look no further than Beijing’s 2004 Defense White Paper, which ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to acquire the wherewithal to “command” the commons, or its just-published 2006 Defense White Paper, which dropped China’s traditional plea for the advanced world to forego space warfare. A Sino-American space race is not in the offing yet. But Beijing’s endeavors in space are a product of stark realpolitik, and they engage vital national interests. As the PLA enters the high frontier, a cycle of Chinese challenge and American response could come to dominate the bilateral relationship. Stopping this cycle before it starts should be of utmost concern to both governments.
In the meantime, the United States and other spacefaring powers will begin to hedge, hardening new satellites against Chinese weaponry while stockpiling spares. In short, they will hope for the best while preparing for the worst.
James Holmes is a former naval officer and a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security.