Call it a venture in coercive diplomacy. Critics of the Bush administration -- primarily arms-control advocates -- have portrayed China's anti-satellite missile test as Beijing's way of prodding Washington into negotiations on a treaty banning deployment of weaponry in space. The administration has long resisted a ban, calling it premature and unnecessary. In the arms controllers' view, Beijing shot down an old weather satellite to show the US a space arms race would be ruinous.
There's a certain logic to this account of Beijing as a militant proponent of arms control. But it's probably wrong nonetheless. A space arms accord would lock in the US' current superiority -- and with it Chinese inferiority -- in this critical domain. This would be anathema to Chinese military strategists, many of whom believe the US military is poised to develop space weaponry, if it hasn't already. They beseech China's top leadership to match US efforts aloft.
If not arms control, what motivates China's military space program? Taiwan is an immediate, overriding priority. Beijing must deter or defeat US naval intervention to prevail in the Taiwan Strait. Space warfare represents the high-altitude component of Chinese naval strategy in the Strait, which deploys "niche" capabilities -- mines and submarines, to name two -- to deny US Navy forces access to these waters despite overall inferiority.
Offsetting superior US military might is a must. As they gaze seaward and skyward, Chinese thinkers have embraced the concept of the "assassin's mace," which envisions negating a superior enemy's advantages by landing a single, sharp blow. The kind of blow that Chinese forces might strike against US warships with sea mines or stealthy submarines, or against satellites with ground-based interceptors or lasers.
The US military's performance during the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War impressed Chinese military analysts. But these analysts also came away convinced that space would come to represent an Achilles' heel for US troops should they come to depend on high technology -- as they did. Chinese strategists are convinced -- and their US counterparts privately agree -- that "networked" US forces would find detecting and targeting Chinese units nearly unthinkable without satellite communications and sensors.
"Battlespace awareness" -- tracking friendly and enemy assets during conflict -- would suffer without satellite surveillance. The accuracy of weaponry such as Tomahawk cruise missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions would be elusive without Global Positioning System satellites. The ability to disable or destroy US satellites would thus bolster China's capacity to thwart naval intervention in the Taiwan Strait.
But Taiwan isn't the only factor driving China's military space program. Strategists are looking beyond a Taiwan contingency, and what they see spurs them on to even greater exertions in space. Beijing regards the seas and skies adjacent to China's coasts as a "commons" through which commerce, shipments of raw materials and military power can flow freely. A rising China is increasingly reluctant to entrust the security of this commons to uncertain US goodwill.
A China-US space race is not in the offing -- yet. But Beijing's endeavors in space are a product of stark realpolitik, and they engage vital interests. As the People's Liberation Army enters the high frontier, a cycle of Chinese challenge and US response could dominate the bilateral relationship. Blocking this cycle should be of utmost concern to both governments.
And Taiwan? China now brandishes a potent assassin's mace. Taipei should assume the worst -- that the PLA can hold off US naval forces in wartime -- and tend to its own defenses.
James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security.
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