I n the wake of the Jan. 11 test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapon by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there has been rampant speculation about the rationales underlying it. Especially after the Chinese Foreign Ministry first refused to comment, then delivered pedestrian bromides, before finally acknowledging a test at all, nearly a fortnight after the destruction of the Feng Yun-1C weather satellite, there have been worries that there is now a rogue People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acting on its own. Others have argued that this was a desperate attempt to persuade U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to come to the table on space arms control.
Such reactions are like Rorschach tests, revealing more about observers’ prejudices than casting light on actual motivations. Thus, those who support arms control see the Chinese action as motivated by arms control; those who see an aggressive China see the test as a preamble to full-blown militarization of space. The Chinese, as an autonomous actor, are relegated to the sidelines; but as a major and growing power, the PRC needs to be judged on its own terms.
In this regard, it is useful to re-examine recent history. The Chinese test occurred after many years of official Chinese statements opposing the militarization and weaponization of outer space. China has been an active participant in the United Nations’ efforts to negotiate a treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space . It is this track record of space arms control efforts and public statements that seems to have caused many observers to be surprised by the Chinese A-Sat test.
The Jan. 11 test, coupled with reports that there had been previous, unsuccessful tests over the past one to two years, however, suggests that Beijing’s interest in arms control was, at best, half-hearted. Moreover, a careful observer of the Chinese might have deduced that a policy reformulation was in the offing. The Chinese decision to omit any mention of space arms control from their 2006 Defense White Paper (released in December), when it had been a staple in several of the previous biannual editions, should have served as a warning sign of imminent change.
At the same time, the White Paper’s omission of space arms control indicates that the test was not conducted by a rogue PLA. The issuance of the White Paper is a major event; its wording is carefully formulated, and involves not only the Chinese military, but also the Foreign Ministry and other elements of the State Council, the Chinese government’s highest decision-making body. The inclusion or omission of elements, especially those that have been regularly incorporated in the past, is not undertaken lightly, but requires approval from the highest levels.
The White Paper omission, coupled with previous tests of the A-Sat system, whether successful or unsuccessful, similarly suggests that the Jan. 11 test was not a response to any specific American action of the past several months, such as the U.S. National Space Policy .
Indeed, it is important to avoid an excessively American-centric interpretation of Chinese actions. As a major regional power, it is likely that China’s actions were motivated by factors outside the Beijing-Washington channel.
It is possible, for example, that the test was intended to warn Taiwan against pro-independence moves. This is especially important as the 2008 Olympics draw nearer. Given the enormous prestige at stake, Beijing would want to deter anything that would detract from the success of its coming out party, most of all a move by Taipei hinting at independence.
China also is faced with both India and Japan as burgeoning Asian space powers. New Delhi, having expressed interests in both lunar programs and anti-ballistic missile capabilities, constitutes not only an economic competitor, but also a scientific, diplomatic and potentially even military one in space. Similarly, Japan’s space program now includes reconnaissance satellites. Taken in conjunction with the promotion of the Japanese defense agency to full ministerial rank, and in light of ongoing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo, China’s actions may just as easily be directed at Japan as at the United States .
Finally, it is at least possible that the test was simply a capstone in an ongoing weapons development program. Indeed, if reports of prior tests of China’s A-Sat system are correct, programmatic milestones may be as much at work as diplomatic signaling.
But if the test is not a sign of a rogue PLA, or a response to some American or other foreign action, this is cause for more, rather than less, concern for several reasons.
The PRC’s understanding of its “stakeholder” role isapparently lacking. Beijing’s confusing response to an incident of their own making is startling. Unlike the April 2001 Chinese jet fighter collision with an American EP-3, the Chinese test was hardly a chance event. That Beijing should apparently have failed to understand the repercussions from a successful A-Sat test — including concern about the resulting debris field — is disquieting.
There are clear limitations in the West’s understanding of Chinese decision-making. Despite nearly 30 years of opening and reform, academic and business exchanges, and regular diplomatic and political intercourse, the Chinese leadership system remains opaque. This has clear ramifications for both day-to-day diplomacy, including arms control negotiations, and crisis management.
It is essential to view the PRC on its own terms. The PRC undertook the A-Sat test because it fit into the Chinese calculus of comprehensive national power and self-interest. An effective American response must take that calculus into account.
In this regard, it also is essential to recognize the role of the PLA. The PLA is a professional military, a nd as with any professional military, it is charged with fighting and winning the nation’s wars. PLA analyses, including in the most recent Defense White Paper, have concluded that what is crucial in achieving this task is the ability to dominate the flow of information. PLA writings on “information dominance,” based on Chinese analyses of the West’s demonstrated reliance on space-based systems in recent wars, including the first Persian Gulf W ar, operations in the Balkans, the Afghan war, and the 2003 advance to Baghdad , implicitly — and often explicitly — refer to the consequent need to dominate outer space in order to influence information collection and exploitation.
As a professional military, it would therefore be derelict of the PLA not to be prepared to undertake operations in space. To concede the high ground of space would mean allowing opposing militaries to fight in the way they are accustomed to fighting, while denying the PLA the ability to fight in the way it needs to fight. What we have seen is therefore not the actions of a rogue PLA, but of a military that takes its role seriously. At the same time, it is essential to recognize that this is a role that the party and national leadership has assigned and approved .
The PRC A-Sat test, then, was ultimately undertaken not simply as a response to American or foreign actions, nor because PLA generals are power-mad, but because it is consistent with what the Chinese leadership perceives their national interests to require. Formulating an adequate response will require addressing those same interests in a Chinese, rather than an American, context.
Dean Cheng is a senior analyst at CNA Corp., a nonprofit think tank in Washington. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.