Thursday, January 18, 2007

China Wants a Piece of the Sky

Apparently the delicate sensors of the arms control fraternity picked up a frisson—a shudder of excitement—from the Forum on Space and Defense in Colorado Springs.

The rumor is that the Chinese government destroyed one of its own obsolete satellites, identified as FY-1C, in a test of an ASAT—anti-satellite weapon.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk is not pleased:

If China has conducted an ASAT test, this is extremely bad. I had been hoping that the Bush Administration would push for a ban on anti-satellite testing, either in the form of a code of conduct. The Bush folks, however, have been fond of saying that wasn’t necessary, because “there is no arms race in space.”

Well, we have one now, instigated by an incredibly short-sighted Chinese government. (I suspect this test will have also created a massive debris problem).

The United States and other space-faring states should demarche the Chinese government for what is a stupid, clumsy and short-sighted decision.

Although this idiotic move by the Chinese government will demonstrate why we don’t want hit-to-kill ASAT testing in orbit—that will be a long-term recognition. In the short-term, the Chinese will simply not be credible partners in efforts to keep space peaceful. Moreover, other countries could follow suit with their own anti-satellite programs, including the United States.

This is a very disappointing day.

For deep, reasoned analysis of Chinese motives and priorities, we will apparently have to wait for the publication of Dr. Lewis’s forthcoming Minimum Means of Reprisal.

China Matters, on the other hand, will provide some non-specialist shoot-from-the-hip spitballing.

2006 has apparently been a very good year for the U.S. missile defense initiative, even if the over-the-top boo-yahing of Martin Sieff, UPI’s cheerleader-in-chief for missile defense systems and the people who love them, is discounted.

The Department of Defense has shed the Rumsfeldian incubus of reckless cost-cutting, and development and testing has been returned to the sober-sided, meticulous pocket protector crowd. As a result, the tests are actually working and the multi-billion dollar military-industrial gravy train will keep on rolling along.

Spurred by the North Korean missile contretemps, the neoconservative Abe government has put missile defense on the front burner. It’s talking about setting up a joint U.S. Japan ballistic defense facility in Nagasaki, as a counter to all-purpose bugbear Kim Jung Il and, in the future, China.

India is developing its own missile defense system and, in a development sure to warm Chinese hearts, is also working on an ICBM with " the potential range to hit any target in China”.

Conversely, it’s been a bad year for China and its rickety deterrent force of a couple dozen ICBMs.

It’s long been suspected by me, some guy at FAS, and the Chinese themselves that the mission of the burgeoning missile defense infrastructure in Alaska is probably not to stop a hail of ICBMs from Kim Jung Il’s grandson when the system reaches full capability mid-century.

Probably, the whole Missile Defense thing is an effort to knock down the (relatively) strongest leg of the shaky Chinese nuclear deterrent triad, its ICBMs.

And that means China is left without a credible riposte to U.S. use of tactical nuclear weapons to forestall an invasion of Taiwan.

Now, I suppose the Chinese could try to restore their ICBM deterrent by building a bunch of newer, better missiles, something the rest of the world would regard as destabilizing even if the Chinese themselves considered it restabilizing.

Or the Chinese could try to level the playing field by clearing the skies over China of the US satellites the missile defense system will rely on to get the whole early warning and response ball rolling.

I don’t think that the Chinese will start plunking US satellites as they pass overhead.

This test may be more in the nature of a calculated outrage—like the North Korean nuclear test—an attempt to reset the agenda and an announce that the status quo ante is no longer acceptable and China’s new pretensions and priorities as a world and space power must be accommodated.

Maybe the Chinese will even promote the idea of sovereign skies—that a country has the right to control what satellites cross its borders and compromise its security, no matter how high up—especially since the United States, keen to protect its perceived technological advantages, has scorned a treaty to keep missile defense systems out of space.

China, of course, has been acutely aware of America’s dominance in eye in the sky matters and is always looking for ways counter the US advantage—such as using Russian SAMs to shoot down the U2s we sent over China with Taiwanese pilots in the 1960s.

Maybe now they are setting their sights higher and, in a piece of spacewar kungfu, challenge us using our very own U.S. National Space Policy, authorized by President Bush on August 31, 2006, against us.

The policy is the usual piece of unilateral, militarized, pre-emptive chest thumping we’ve come to expect from the Bush administration, but in this case it may be a fatal bit of overreach.

Instead of strengthening the American position in space by placing our space interests beyond international interference, it could open the door for other powers to assert their right to order their corner of space as they see fit.

The money quotes:

The United States rejects any claims by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies...and rejects any limitations on the fundamental right of the United States to operate in and acquire data from space;

The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights;

The United States considers space capabilities...vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will reserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests;

The trouble is in the last paragraph. It goes well beyond “freedom of the cosmos”--a formulation pretty difficult to attack-- to a pretty bald unilateral assertion of U.S. space hegemony.

And it’s nakedly based on a narrow concept of U.S. national interest, rather than the status of World War II victor and guarantor of a new world order that gives us a spot on the U.N. Security Council, or benevolent nuclear elder and dispenser of goodies to the atomic have-nots that underlies our dominant role in the NPT.

Our privileges in space are as freshly minted, brash, suspect, and untested as the Bush administration that proclaimed them.

Just the thing to raise the hackles at Zhongnanhai, particularly as it sees China becoming enmeshed in a web of satellites, ships, subs, and missile defenses meant to eliminate its strategic deterrent.

Maybe now, with Bush at his weakest, is the time for China to challenge the President’s unilateral formulation and declare that “facts in the sky” demonstrate that China has the right and ability to protect itself from the satellite vanguards of the U.S. ballistic missile defense.

Beijing may abandon hopes of any multilateral treaty to demilitarize space.

Instead, broad-spectrum pursuit of its own security—including ASAT defenses and the assertion of the right to deploy and use them--and bilateral negotiations from a position of increased strength would form the core of a new Chinese space doctrine.

It will be interesting to see what fall-out—physically, militarily, and diplomatically--the destruction of FY-1C will bring.


Unknown said...

There will be zero fall-out, because there can be no "outrage" here. No one can argue, with a straight face, that China has violated any legal or moral commitments by destroying one of her own satellites.

Your perception of the importance of the US missile defense program is also significantly off-target.

The cost of building additional ICBMs and nuclear devices is absolutely trivial. The expensive aspect of these systems are R&D, not production. But there are numerous available designs... not just existing nuclear ICBMs, but newer CZ rockets constantly refined as part of the civilian space program.

China has total confidence in its ability to maintain a nuclear deterrent, which is precisely why political/international/military relations with the US remain very positive.

China Hand said...

Thanks for your comment. Dr. Lewis's dismay at the physical aspects of the test--turning a satellite into a giant pile of space mulch that will interfere with working satellites and fall to earth at inopportune moments--is certainly understandable, even if I disagree with him concerning the opportunity for space demilitarization that he believes the Chinese are throwing away.

Thanks for pointing out that China has new and improved ICBM designs in the can that it could put into production in short order.

However, as to your point of China's "total confidence" in its deterrent, it seems to me that ambiguity is at the heart of any deterrent program: one side always has to keep the other guy wondering about how good his countermeasures are. And the fact that China is willing to spend the financial, technological, and diplomatic capital on an ASAT program implies that it is somewhat concened about BMD and feels its deterrent could use a little beefing up.

Don VO said...

Doesn't the US have a "space dominance" policy that is a Monroe doctrine of sorts for space? That is the US will prevent other countries from acquiring or challenging US superiority in space? This move by the commie's clearly challenges this doctrine and it's time to put this policy into action and impose sanctions on China. The Chinese economy will sink in 2 months without the US market. 1 billion protests will break out because of this idiotic act by the commies.

熊眼看世界 said...
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Unknown said...

don vo...
and how fast will our economy sink when China decides to demand payment on all those loans we owe them, plus interest? Also, who is going to manufacture all our cheap stuff without China?

Chinese/American relations is a 500 pound weight held up by two people at once. Neither can let go, but both are trying to see who can shift more weight onto the other man's shoulders. Blind faith in American exceptionalism has no value here.

MR said...

Wait a minute, I thought we (the USA) were the only ones in the world allowed to do stuff like this??!!

Jack said...

The real goal of the chinese test is to prepare itself against an US participation in the defense of Taiwan.

The US military plans rely heavily on the existing satellite networks. Without them, tacitcal and strategic decisions will be made in a dense fog and may very well deprive the US the confidence it needs to enter into direct combat with China over Taiwan.

Another point the chinese is making is to "show off" it's cards. By adding another "card" in it's hand, it will be able to use it as a mean of negotiating a potential test ban on missle defense and anti-satellite weapons.
By combining the 2 issues, China will have at least some leverage in promoting and negotiating an international bad on missle defense in space based systems.

hominy said...

The notion that this test was intended to create a sort of reset is entirely plausible, save for the fact that Chinese leaders must have calculated that Cheney and even Rice would never go for it.

Still, I doubt that China has abandoned the possiblity of any space treaty.

As you note, not a bad day for the missile defense appropriators.

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