Chinese space weapons

Meanwhile, in Foreign Affairs two writers weigh up the recent Chinese anti-satellite missile test. Bates Gill holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is the author of Rising Star: China’s New Security Diplomacy. Martin Kleiber is a Research Assistant at CSIS.

Curiously and worryingly, they argue that the recent test was carried out without the consent of the regime, but was done independently by the PLA.

Why did Beijing act when it did? Why would China carry out such a provocation when it has so painstakingly built up its image as a “peacefully rising” country and a “responsible great power” seeking a more “harmonious world”? What kind of a counterpart is China?

The real answer may be simpler — and more disturbing. Put bluntly, Beijing’s right hand may not have known what its left hand was doing. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its strategic rocket forces most likely proceeded with the ASAT testing program without consulting other key parts of the Chinese security and foreign policy bureaucracy — at least not those parts with which most foreigners are familiar. This may be a more troubling prospect than anything the test might have revealed about China’s military ambitions or arms control objectives.

They believe that the same applied in the recent past:

In April 2001, soon after a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided, it became apparent that the Chinese military was not fully disclosing what it knew about the incident. Military authorities on Hainan Island, where the EP-3 was forced to land, did not provide full or accurate details of the incident to Beijing — especially not to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — frustrating efforts by U.S. and Chinese diplomats to resolve the crisis.

Similarly, in early 2003, the PLA at first suppressed information about the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), even though military doctors in the Guangzhou Military Region had been aware of an outbreak in southern China since January. Even when SARS spread to major military hospitals in Beijing in late February and early March, the PLA did not report these cases to civilian authorities. The news broke out only after a whistle-blowing PLA doctor informed the media that one hospital had 60 SARS patients and had had six SARS-related deaths. The information appeared in Time magazine in early April, prompting the Chinese government to mobilize to confront SARS and deal with the PLA’s cover-up.

Any new US administration will find it hard to deal with a regime who has ASAT tests such as the recent one – not only did it come completely out of the blue, it also is thought to be the bigget man-made creation of space debris:

For years, Chinese nuclear strategists had been quietly warning their U.S. counterparts that the PLA was working toward acquiring an ASAT capability. The most recent test was part of an ongoing series of ASAT trials, including one involving laser weapons that blind satellites. But the 2006 Pentagon report on the PLA’s modernization appears to have underestimated China’s capabilities: it claimed that China could destroy or disable a satellite only by attacking it with a nuclear-armed missile. In January, the PLA successfully tracked and destroyed a satellite with a direct, kinetic impact, suggesting that it was further along than the U.S. government had assumed.

This realization surely will prompt more scrutiny of China’s aerospace programs. The ASAT incident has already breathed new life into U.S. missile defense projects and the development of advanced technologies to counter the threat that China and other countries may pose to U.S. space-based assets. And it will strengthen arguments for proposed regulations that would impose tough export controls and further restrict high-tech trade with China, particularly in aerospace and information technologies.

The ASAT test has also cast doubt on China’s reliability as a global partner. China’s move, many informed observers believe, has generated and thrown into orbit more space debris than any other single human event, putting at risk China’s own satellites and those of other countries for decades to come. In performing the test, Beijing not only demonstrated its capacity to threaten U.S. military assets in space but also showed a lack of concern for other countries’ interest in the safe operation of satellites for day-to-day civilian activities, such as weather forecasting, financial transactions, and telephone calls.

They conclude:

For Beijing, preventing miscommunication will require better controlling the signals it sends to its neighbors and the United States. It is up to the leadership in Beijing to decide how to do this — by showing a greater willingness to break through the country’s legendary stovepiped bureaucracy, by establishing a more effective interagency process, by bringing more key players from across the security and foreign policy bureaucracy to engage with international partners, by strengthening the hand of state ministries and reining in the PLA. All of these would be difficult undertakings. But China’s growing weight in world affairs means that Beijing must do more to demonstrate its stated intentions. In the meantime, the United States — and much of the rest of the world — will be left wondering what kind of partner China can actually be.

I had not realised the PLA were such a rogue element within the regime. Military coup anyone?