Why did China destroy one of its own satellites last week? Most observers believe in one of two explanations: Some think the motivation was primarily military, while others have interpreted it as a prelude to diplomacy. And some have speculated that the Chinese move may have simply been the result of confusion.
Each of these possibilities suggests a different American strategy, and the United States should draw on all three possibilities to develop the most effective response possible.
The military case for testing a so-called anti-satellite weapon is straightforward. In a conflict over Taiwan, the United States would depend heavily on precision- guided weapons to efficiently target Chinese military assets. By eliminating American surveillance satellites, China could make it much harder for the U.S. military to identify targets. And by removing Global Positioning System satellites, it could make it much harder for the United States to hit even those targets that it could find. Yet this does not explain why China acted now, at a time when it has been working hard to convince the world that its rise is benign.
The United States is already considering tighter controls on the transfer of technology to China, and Beijing fears the Democrat-controlled Congress is more likely to take a harder line on bilateral trade in order to force the revaluation of the yuan.
Nonetheless, the possibility that China was motivated by simple military logic points to several prudent U.S. responses. The most obvious reaction would be to demonstrate a tit-for-tat capability—to show that the United States can destroy satellites too. But this would be essentially useless: If China and the United States both took out each others’ satellites in a conflict, the Americans would lose far more. More sensibly, the United States should build greater redundancy into its military systems so that losing a handful of satellites would have little effect on its ability to fight. It should also improve its capability to launch new satellites on short notice. Besides making military sense, these steps would be applauded by American allies; a U.S. test of its own anti- satellite weapons would receive a more hostile reception.
The Chinese test may also be an attempted prelude to negotiations. In the mid-1980s, the United States, in a successful gambit, deployed short-range missiles to Europe with the intention of bargaining them away in exchange for Soviet disarmament. The Chinese may see their test similarly, allowing them to force Washington into negotiations designed to keep weapons from space. China fears a space-based U.S. missile defense system could neutralize its nuclear arsenal, and thus might seek a ban on space weapons.
If this is the Chinese strategy, Beijing has seriously miscalculated.
The Bush administration has long been antagonistic to negotiations on space weapons, and military provocation is more likely to strengthen those voices in Washington that insist China cannot be trusted. Indeed the administration would be unwise to reward China for its action, which would only invite further tests at critical points as negotiations proceeded. To be certain, there are prudent diplomatic steps to be taken. As China seeks to be seen as a responsible power, Washington should make sure international condemnation is universal, including by states like Russia whose responses have so far been weak at best. Any negotiations will have to come later.
A final possibility is that the test was the result of a misfire between China’s civilian and military leadership. The launch could not have happened without some nod from President Hu Jintao. Still, the lack of a quick Chinese response to complaints by America and its allies suggests that at least the timing of the test may have been unexpected by China’s leaders and by its Foreign Ministry.
If the tests were the result of confusion they suggest that Washington needs to reinvigorate its efforts to broaden military-to-military contact. The U.S. and Chinese militaries are bound to bump up against each other in the future. Already Chinese submarines have tailed U.S. carrier groups in the Pacific, and it is not hard to imagine an incident involving the two navies.
In this light, the United States should pursue military exchanges to better understand how officers relate and respond to the civilian leadership.
To its credit, the administration’s initial response to the Chinese anti-satellite test has been measured and restrained. Some in the administration are likely to push back and will advocate a more aggressive response. In the long run, though, their counsel will prove unwise.
The most sensible policy will have to address the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to asymmetric warfare. And, well beyond the space-weapons challenge, Washington must learn more about how decisions are made within China so that it can avoid future crises.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.