Who rules in Beijing? It took China 12 days to admit that on Jan. 11 it had used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its own satellites. This was the first destruction of a satellite in space in more than 20 years and the first time any state has used a missile to kill a satellite. As Australian analyst Robyn Lim said: "We can only speculate about China's motives and ... whether the military informed the political leadership in advance. China seems to want to demonstrate to the United States that the cost of defending satellites will be much higher than the cost of shooting them down."
The US has not pursued anti-satellite capabilities since the end of the Cold War. China's capability puts the world's satellites -- military and commercial alike -- at risk. This aggressive missile adventure in space generated a dangerous amount of space debris that can endanger other countries' satellites, particularly commercial ones.
This also had the effect of increasing nervousness in Japan, something many analysts are very concerned about. As Lim argued: "How long will Japan remain willing to remain content to rely on the US missile defense and nuclear umbrella?"
Japan has already been rattled by North Korea -- a quasi ally of China that Beijing refuses to rein in -- and its dangerous nuclear and missile brinkmanship. With China now challenging the US in high-tech areas, Japan will grow even more afraid. If Japan starts to think it cannot afford to rely on the US nuclear umbrella and missile defense, which at this point in time is defensive and non-nuclear, it might well conclude that it needs nuclear weapons for its security.
This would set off a round of nuclear proliferation in North Asia as other states, such as South Korea, followed suit.
Up until now Beijing -- at least its political leadership -- had pursued a responsible policy toward the US. A confidential agreement had been reached between the US and China for joint space programs, including moon missions, during a summit last April between US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao (
The successful destruction on Jan. 11 of an old weather satellite, more than 850km above the Earth, has undermined not only those agreements but also the proposal by Chinese National Space Administration Agency deputy head Luo Ge (
Australia, among others, should be very much in favor of this kind of peaceful cooperation between China and the US.
The Australian minister for foreign affairs at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade recently pointed out that there was strong reason for concern that there was apparently no prior knowledge at the Chinese foreign ministry about the missile tests. This, the minister said, was perhaps a signal that the Chinese military was behind these aggressive military initiatives.
The satellite shootdown is also dangerous as it occurred during President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) last year in office. It also comes at a time of power shift in the US Congress, where the Democrats, who are much more critical of China than were the Republicans, now have the majority.
Taiwanese should not see China's desire to maintain its image during the Olympics as an opportunity to make progress and constitutional changes by clarifying its boundaries. This could be very dangerous for international peace and security, particularly in Northeast Asia.
By knocking out the satellite, moving J-10 fighters close to the Taiwan Strait and, last year, tailing a US carrier group with a submarine, Beijing is sending a message to the US that intervention in a conflict between Taiwan and China might not be as easy or as painless as it would have been in 1996. All these measures were an attempt to convince Washington to keep a tight leash on Chen.
Michael Danby is a federal member for Melbourne Ports in Australia.