China enter into “Star Wars”

Updated On: Jan 23, 2007

The rise of China is meant to be benign, a message consistently trumped out by the Chinese government since 2005.

But a recent anti-satellite weapons test have shattered this perception with a frenzy of US-led international outcries against what is perceived as the next stage in Chinese military ambitions.

Not only is China, the third country after the US and Russia. Successful in having intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), putting a man in space, but it is also now the third country in the world to have successfully tested anti-satellite weapons. The US was highly displeased about the Chinese test and launched protests almost immediately as it entertains no challenge from any state in the world to its outer space supremacy.

Technologically, the Chinese test signals China’s potential to disrupt the entire US satellite navigation system which the US relies on for activities ranging from weather reporting to cruise missile guidance. It has the world’s largest network of satellites in space currently. Chinese paralysis of this network effectively trumps the hi-tech supremacy of US military might.

As a reflection of US’ extreme concern over the test, news of the Chinese missile test actually preceded all news about Iraq in major US news network.  A frenzy of commentaries followed, from all quarters in the US, from conservatives to liberal papers and all media outfits. This is surely not good news for China, with its “peaceful development” slogan and has wanted to be under the radar internationally, particularly in the military field, in order to buy time for its development as it has yet to tackle many serious problems on its roads to superpower status.

The test is also faulted for not providing advance warning, conceivably a fatal mistake made on the Chinese side. How can one possibly hope to mask a test that would shatter a satellite in space into anything from 10 000 to a million pieces of debris? It would also inevitably be seen as something irresponsible by the international community for introducing more space trash to the already 14 000 pieces of floating debris in earth’s outer space. Seen in any aspect, this test kept under wraps is likely to be seen negatively for China’s image despite many dubious US media report that it may have been done diplomatically to force the US into recognizing Chinese space capabilities and to pressure US into agreeing to stop development of space-based weapons.

Speculations are also rife over the Chinese silence and reasons behind the anti-satellite weapon test.  Some believed it was because President Hu did not expect the test to succeed and did not anticipate a strong international reaction.  Some even suggested that Chinese leaders might not have fully known what their military was doing. 

Whatever the reasons, it would be a bad mistake if the goal was to pressure the US. The Chinese have to realize that the world’s sole superpower will act to maintain its military superiority and technological dominance at all cost.  Carrying out a test now with the neo-Cons in power would give the conservatives, right-wingers, hawks and military-industrial complex in Washington the perfect opportunity to target China as the next Soviet Union or, worse still, a Bismarckian German challenge at a time when China’s power project capabilities is still immature (in both hard and soft power). It also gives ammunition for the Democrats-led Congress to targetChina as the No. 1 US enemy after the Iraqi ordeal is over, not to mention any potential incoming Democrat President. In other words, it has every potential to unite the now-divided US opinion over the real threat to American power and dominance of world affairs.

Although US-led, the protestations are not restricted to just the Americans. Japan, Australia have followed, and India has also expressed concern. 

The Japanese was fast to react.. Already fearful of Chinese power and having its own global ambitions, Japan was quick to contact the Chinese government for more information about the test and what it entails for the fragile recovering Sino-Japanese relations.  Australia for reasons unknown reacted in an almost paranoid manner, summoning its Chinese ambassador for protestations. The Indians watched with envy and fear as it wonders how to catch up with the Chinese as a current second-rate space power. Even countries traditionally less critical of Chinese foreign policy, such as South Korea, has voiced concerns. China has no friends in this test. Its silence, feigned ignorance or denial has left it isolated diplomatically at a time when Chinese soft power and global power projections have been highly successfully in recent years. This was a bad mistake diplomatically on all counts. China may have just united the US, Japan, India, Australia and South Korea into a coalition for developing weaponized space technology. 

Despite all the brouhaha, however, if one takes a cool-headed approach to this media frenzy, what has transpired in fact is not all that earth-shattering. The test is relatively primitive. The Chinese fired a medium-range ballistic missile from its Xizhang Space Center into space 537 miles (865 km) above the earth to shoot down an aging satellite in orbit (Feng Yun 1C polar orbit satellite) since 1999. Nothing spectacular technically speaking although its symbolism is far more potent than the technological display. It is also not that such tests are out of the blue for US intelligence as it represents the third or fourth attempt by the Chinese to shoot down an object in space with previous tries either aborted or failed although the precision of this shoot-down with relatively simple technology has shocked American military experts. According to expert views, this event has been equated with shooting down something the size of a trash can in space. What the US should really be concerned about is how the Chinese are able to use primitive weapons (medium range missiles and Chinese have lots of this, 800-900 targeted at Taiwan alone) to potentially shoot down billions of dollars of hi-tech equipment.

One also has to keep in perspective that the US remains the world’s only superpower in space technologies – so far. The Chinese spend US$500 million on space development in contrast with NASA’s US$17 billion. US response to the Chinese test, rationally speaking, can be viewed as overreaction given the fact that it is far ahead of the Chinese in weaponizing the outer space. The US is currently the only country with an ongoing ground laser program which can shoot down satellites and orbiting equipment from ground. It refuses to yield to any suggestions of an international agreement in stopping space-based weapons.

If nothing else, this episode warns the Chinese that they still have some ways to go when it comes to winning allies in its rise to global prominence. It may also want to reconsider carrying out a ground-base laser test in the near future, given that the PRC has been put on notice by US-led international community protests. The US has also made public that it is aware that the Chinese had already “illuminated” US satellites using their ground-based lasers as an early attempt to fine-tuning their targeting systems for shooting down US satellites.

The Chinese say they don’t want a space race, but it may already be too late, and the race may be gathering its own momentum.


China silent about anti-satellite weapon test (Straits Times Interactive, 22 January 2007)

China shows power with Star Wars test (Straits Times, 21 January 2007)

China's weapons test a threat to India (Straits Times, 21 January 2007)

China shoots down satellite; US angry (Manila Times, 20 January 2007)

China plays down fears after satellite shot down (Channelnewsasia, 20 January 2007)

China says space programme no threat, but many disagree (Channelnewsasia, 19 Jan 2007)

China’s Muscle Flex in Space (NY Times, 20 January 2007)

China Shows Assertiveness in Weapons Test (NY Times, 20 January 2007)

US demands answers on China test (BBC News, 20 January 2007)