The Space Race Nobody Wanted
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
Mainland China has been exceedingly careful to assure the world that its rise will be peaceful. But it shot itself in the foot with its space test last month, which demolished one of its old weather satellites. In one fell swoop, it undid years of hard work and gave advocates of the "China threat" theory a convenient bat with which to bash Beijing.
So far, it is not clear that China realises how much damage it has done to itself. Beijing spokesmen say repeatedly that the test was not directed at any other country, as though that was in any way reassuring. Now that China has finally acquired this capability, the world knows that it can be directed against any country.
Beijing's Foreign Ministry repeatedly sings the mantra: "China has consistently advocated the peaceful development of outer space and opposes the arming of space and military competition in space."
Now we know that Beijing was secretly working on space weapons while publicly advocating the "peaceful development of outer space". So its protestations of peaceful intentions will now be taken with a large pinch of salt.
The fact that China took almost two weeks to confirm the satellite kill has fuelled rumours that there is a split within the leadership, or that the military carried out the experiment without the approval of civilian leaders. Neither scenario is reassuring to the international community.
Major countries have called on Beijing to explain its actions and be more forthcoming about its intentions. Yet it has done little more than continue to assert: "China has never, and will never, participate in any form of a space arms race."
But by becoming the third country - after the United States and Russia - to develop anti-satellite weapons, China has already revived an arms race in space, one that had been dormant for more than two decades.
In Washington, the test has been described as a "wake-up call". After the test, the US Congress called for the creation of a new National Space Intelligence Centre to enhance security for American satellites, both commercial and military.
The US State Department described the test as inconsistent with an agreement between US President George W. Bush and President Hu Jintao to forge co-operation in the civil space area. Germany, the president of the European Union, called the test "inconsistent with international efforts to avert an arms race in outer space", adding that it "undermines security in outer space".
As for China's neighbours, Japan deplored what it called a "violation" of the "accepted agreement that space should not be used for military purposes". India, which fought a border war with China in 1962, expressed deep disquiet about the test, which may spur Indian interest in a missile defence programme.
The space test also focused international attention on China's rapidly rising military budget, and on its efforts to develop a modern air force and blue-water navy. The People's Liberation Army recently unveiled the new J-10 jet fighter, and Beijing has announced that it has the ability to build an aircraft carrier.
In response to calls to be more transparent, China has in recent years issued five white papers on national defence, the most recent of which appeared in December. While these documents provide some information, they do not make Chinese military thinking transparent.
For example, the December white paper did not provide any inkling that China would be testing an anti-satellite weapon in January. In fact, China has been conducting these tests at least since 2005, with three previous tests having failed.
To salvage the situation, it would help if Beijing made an all-out effort for an international treaty to ban the weaponisation of space. While the militarisation of space has already occurred, it's not too late to prevent weapons from being placed in space. But what is really needed is for China to abandon its obsession with secrecy, especially in military matters.
(Originally appeared in the February 14, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)