China’s messy anti-satellite (A-Sat) test Jan. 11 poses a serious challenge to America, not only because of the unprecedented debris cloud it created, but more importantly for what it says about China’s intentions and capabilities with regard to space and America’s space power.

The Chinese also “illuminated” a U.S. satellite last December, and they have previously tested the KT1 space launch vehicle used in the Jan. 11 exercise. They are demonstrating that their emerging capabilities include multiple ground-based options for engaging satellites in low Earth and other orbits.

At present, the United States lacks an adequate security policy for space. In many ways, technology is ahead of strategy, and how we respond to this emerging Chinese capability is critical.

Some ask if the test represents a U.S. intelligence failure. I think that is probably overstating the case, but it is true our prevailing view was that the Chinese were a long way from conducting such a test with a kinetic kill vehicle and using a space launch vehicle to get it into space.

As someone who follows intelligence matters closely, I’m not convinced that we have the clearest picture of what China is up to. And, as with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the United States needs accurate, actionable and timely intelligence to formulate good policy.

While there have been reports of jamming and lasing incidents in the past, the Chinese test removed any doubt about whether other nations could directly threaten U.S. space capabilities. Perhaps the test was a reaction against the Bush administration’s October 2006 National Space Policy, news of which began leaking out last summer. Perhaps it was a ham-handed way to push the United States into arms control negotiations.

Either way, the Pentagon must be better organized to deal with this threat. Today, national security space capabilities are fragmented across multiple services, agencies and staffs at the Defense Department and within the intelligence community. This impedes organized and effective protection of the myriad space capabilities we depend upon.

Congress also has under funded protective measures for space systems, which makes them far more vulnerable and attractive to attack.

Central to past debates has been whether arms control agreements are an effective way to maintain stability. I believe they can be and I believe in treaties, but, especially in space, the difficulty in establishing effective verification regimes is enormous. The fact the Chinese test surprised the world at the same time China has been leading the charge to ban such weapons in the Conference on Disarmament and to mitigate the problem of man-made space debris certainly begs that question.

China as a rising power sees the benefits of a robust space program and recognizes the great economic, military and intelligence value the United States derives from its space capabilities. Just as American military planners must consider what threats and vulnerabilities a potential adversary possesses, we can expect China to consider how it might deny the United States its unique and asymmetric space advantage, as well as use space for its own military purposes.

There is no question the Chinese believe we want to maintain and expand our dominance in space. A late January editorial in Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po newspaper referred to “the U.S. hegemonic attempt to singly dominate space,” and efforts to “deny access to space to anyone ‘hostile to U.S. interests.’”

And while arms control agreements alone cannot eliminate threats or reduce miscalculations, international norms and rules of the road can play a positive role. Like-minded nations can and should agree on principles for minimizing debris in space, reducing potentially hazardous actions, increasing cooperation and information sharing, and establishing accountability for disruptive or hostile space actions. The United States could once again seize a leadership role in shaping these norms, either by unilateral declaration and action or by joint action with friends and allies.

One of Donald Rumsfeld’s last acts before his nomination to serve as Secretary of Defense was to chair the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management & Organization. The commission’s final report, issued interestingly on another, earlier Jan. 11, is an excellent document.

It recognizes the enormous and growing U.S. dependence on space; the fragmentation of space policymaking and implementation; the importance of peaceful uses of space; and the critical need to invest in science and technology resources.

But the report also talks about transforming U.S. military space capabilities; strengthening intelligence capabilities; helping shape the international legal and regulatory environment; and creating and sustaining a cadre of space professionals.

Few, I think, would disagree with the proposition that the United States must preserve the ability to protect its satellites against any and all threats. But we have to tread carefully; the rules of the road in space are still being written. The consequences of rash or poorly considered actions can have untold consequences. Because once we cross that line — once the race is on — there is no going back.

Let’s not slam the door shut, without first knowing what’s on the other side.

ep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) chairs the House Homeland Security intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment subcommittee.