China Shows Assertiveness in Weapons Test
NY Times | January 20, 2007
China's apparent success in destroying one of its own orbiting satellites with a ballistic missile signals that its rising military intends to contest American supremacy in space, a realm many here consider increasingly crucial to national security.
The test of an antisatellite weapon last week, which Beijing declined to confirm or deny Friday despite widespread news coverage and diplomatic inquiries, was perceived by East Asia experts as China's most provocative military action since it testfired missiles off the coast of Taiwan more than a decade ago.
Unlike in the Taiwan exercise, the message this time was directed mainly at the United States, the sole superpower in space.
With lengthy white papers, energetic diplomacy and generous aid policies, Chinese officials have taken pains in recent years to present their country as a new kind of global power that, unlike the United States, has only good will toward other nations.
But some analysts say the test shows that the reality is more complex. China has surging national wealth, legitimate security concerns and an opaque military bureaucracy that may belie the government's 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 on China's military in Taiwan. “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 are among the countries in the region that pressed China to explain the test, which if real would make it the third power, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to shoot down an object in space.
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 opposed using weapons in space. “China will not participate in any kind of arms race in outer space,” he told Reuters.
China's silence on the test underscores how much its rapidly modernizing military — 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 the military intends to use relatively inexpensive but highly disruptive technologies to impede the better-equipped and better-trained American forces in the event of an armed conflict — over Taiwan, for example.
The Pentagon makes extensive use of satellites for military communications, intelligence and missile guidance, and some Chinese experts have argued that damaging its space-based satellite infrastructure could hobble American forces.
Yet while China's research and development of such weapons has been well known, the apparent decision to test-fire an antisatellite weapon 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.”
China's military expenditures have been growing at nearly a double-digit pace, even after adjusting for inflation, for 15 years. China has begun to deploy sophisticated submarines, aircraft and antiship missiles that the Pentagon says could have offensive uses.
Yet with a few notable exceptions, Beijing has avoided sharp provocations that could prompt the United States or Japan to focus more on what some officials in each country regard as a potential threat.
Chinese leaders emphasize that they are preoccupied with 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 country has denied that it intends to develop space weapons and sharply criticized the United States for experimenting with a space-based missile defense system. It forged a coalition of Asian countries to jointly develop peaceful space-based technologies.
Last month it published and heavily promoted a white paper on military strategy that emphasized its view that space must remain weapon-free. “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.
Some of such talk amounts to little more than propaganda. But Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says the Chinese military does in fact act cautiously when it comes to improving its strategic capabilities, like long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, to avoid causing alarm in the United States.
“They have talked about antisatellite weapons,” he 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?”
Some analysts suggested that one possible motivation 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 policy that seeks to preserve “freedom of action” in space.
Chinese officials have warned that an arms race could ensue if Washington did not change course.
At a United Nations conference in Vienna last June on uses of space, 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 transcript of his remarks.
Even so, Mr. Pollack, of the Naval War College, said that if China hoped that demonstrating a new weapon of this kind would prompt a positive response in Washington, they most likely 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 might have more to do with proving a technology under development for many years than a cold-war-style negotiating tactic.
China maintains a minimal nuclear arsenal that could inflict enough damage on an enemy to guard against any pre-emptive strike, these analysts said. But the increasing sophistication of American missile interceptors, which are linked to satellite surveillance, threatens the viability of China's limited nuclear arsenal, some in Beijing have argued.
That may have prompted the Second Artillery to show that it had the means to protect fixed missile sites and ensure China's retaliatory capacity by showing that it could take out American satellites.
At the annual military fair in Zhuhai, held in November, the Guangdong-based newspaper Information Times and several other state-run media outlets carried a short interview with an unidentified military official boasting that China had “already completely ensured that it has second-strike capability.” The analyst said China could protect its retaliatory forces because it could destroy satellites in space.
American officials have also noted the development. This month, Lt. Gen. Michael Mapes of the Army testified before Congress that China and Russia were working on systems to hit American satellites with lasers or missiles. And over the summer, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Donald M. Kerr, told reporters that the Chinese 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 expert. “It is not going to concede that the U.S. can be the hegemon in space forever.”
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