China’s successful anti-satellite missile test has sparked a political firestorm, as analysts have tried to ascertain who in China knew what when and to what end. Were China’s diplomats in the dark about the missile strike? Was it all a gambit to force a reluctant United States to the negotiating table for a ban on space-based weapons? While interesting to China watchers and nonproliferation experts, this discussion risks obscuring the real message of the test: Chinese rhetoric notwithstanding, China’s rise will be as disruptive and difficult as that of any other global power.
Officials in both Beijing and Washington have worked hard to sketch out an alternative reality. China’s leaders have traversed the globe, preaching the gospel of the country’s peaceful rise, often to great effect: China will do things differently than the United States and earlier European powers did, not polluting the environment, not colonizing countries to gain access to their natural resources and not infringing on the sovereignty of other countries. For their part, senior U.S. officials, with a growing list of challenging issues on their China agenda, are reluctant to focus for too long on the reality of China’s rise. Doing so would only make cooperation more difficult and provide support to an often obstreperous anti-China lobby in Congress. It is easier to paint China’s rise as a work in progress—one that the United States has the ability to influence.