Why did China shoot down one of its own satellites, now?

Why did China shoot down one of its own “old” satellites, orbiting more than 500 miles out in space, now? It did so to influence the debate in the Conference on Disarmament, which opened its 2007 session at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Monday.

China, which has traditionally maintained a rather low profile in international organizations, has stubbornly refused to give up its insistence on having real, meaningful negotiations on outer space in the Conference on Disarmament.

Its top national security concern, China has been saying, is the prevention of an arms race in outer space (known as PAROS, in disarmament lingo). It wants its concerns respected, and taken seriously.

Now, China may have gotten the Conference on Disarmament’s full attention.

China has apparently used a medium-range missile to shoot down one of its own “ageing” satellites — an event which the U.S. says is a “a matter of concern”, because it indicates a possible threat to American satellites.

Asia Times Online’s China Editor Wu Zhong reported on 22 January that the Chinese test “has surprised the international community as it is the first time that a ground-based missile has been launched successfully to destroy an orbiting satellite“.

The worldwide reaction began with the first reports of the Chinese test last week — nearly a week after the 11 January test actually happened — and only appears to be growing.

One strand was perhaps intended to offer China a somewhat clumsy way to save face — based on the premise, reported in the New York Times on 22 January, that China’s leaders did not know about test (this hypothesis is reinforced by the lack of comment from China), at least in any detail, beforehand. This school of thought believes that the international outcry and not been adequately anticipated.

The U.S. State Department announced on 22 January that Chinese officials had, over the weekend, acknowledged the test — but these officials said the world should not view it as a threat — in discussions in Beijing with visiting State Department official Christopher Hill, who, as it happened, travelled to China to discuss another matter (North Korea). This admission to Hill may well have been the source of the New York Times story.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry finally said, on 23 January, that it had confirmed the test to “some” countries — apparently including the U.S. and Japan. The Associated Press reported that Foreign Ministy spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists: “China has opposed the weaponization of space and any arms race,” and added that the test was not targeted toward any country.

Another strand of reaction scolds China for creating a dangerous cloud of space debris particles, which could endanger other satellites and possibly even the International Space station

The Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, has condemned the Chinese test as “provocative and irresponsible”, and says that it “should be roundly condemned. The deliberate creation of persistent space debris in a highly used orbit is simply unacceptable behavior in space”.

The CDI said, in its 22 January analysis, that “It is unclear what Beijing hoped to accomplish with this provocative test. China has been one of the major players pushing for a treaty that would prevent the weaponization of space”, and added that “Some observers have suggested that the ASAT test could have been a strategic move by the Chinese to bully the United States into actually discussing such a treaty”.

According to the CDI, “the United States and the international community need to take the time to finally have the difficult discussion about what actions are acceptable in space and, more importantly, which ones are absolutely unacceptable. Otherwise, space will become the new Wild West, a situation that is guaranteed to put everyone^’s space assets even more at risk”.

A sub-debate has developed among arms specialists about the level of expertise required for the successful Chinese test.

Canada’s Globa and Mail, in an article from Beijing published on 22 January, said that “The satellite was only about a metre in length, so its destruction by a ballistic missile was a highly impressive show of precision targeting”.

Other reports have suggested that the mission was facilitated by the fact that the Chinese military controlled the signalling from the satellite, which helped the missile home in on the target.

The CDI in Washington did not minimize the achievement: “China’s FY-1C weather satellite, in a polar orbit, was launched in 1999 and approaching the end of its lifespan, but it still worked electronically. This capability allowed it to be tracked by Chinese radar and its path adjusted so that its orbit would be conducive to an intercept. However, to directly intercept an object moving roughly 15,000 mph takes a tremendous amount of accuracy. The FY-1C was spotted by various space surveillance networks on Jan. 11. It disappeared from view and then reappeared on Jan. 12 in a cloud of debris…”

In a message sent to the opening meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on 22 January, UN Secretary-General BAN KI-MOON said that “the prevention of an arms race in outer space presents an urgent challenge, as such a race would seriously affect the preservation of outer space for peaceful purposes”.

There was no discussion of the Chinese test in the meeting — and China’s delegation did not say a word. Dr. Patricia Lewis, a disarmament expert who heads the Geneva-based UN Institute for Disarmament Training and Research (UNIDIR) said that this was not unexpected — as the first matter of business is always to adopt the annual session’s agenda. However, she indicated, everybody is eagerly awaiting some explanation.

China has been saying, over and over, for several years, that it wants the U.S. to agree to recognize this as China’s top national security concern, and to agree to begin negotiations on this topic. China wants real work on an “international legal instrument”, as it told the Conference on Disarmament many times, the last time was in June 2006.

China’s delegation told the Conference on Disarmament at that time, that it was willing to make one concession — to hold off, “until conditions are ripe” — dealing with a verification regime, an issue which has been the sticking point in many international treaty negotiations in recent years, and to work instead on agreement on “Technical Confidence-Building Measures”. China insists, it is necessary — it wants real, serious negotiations on a new arms control agreement addressing its concerns about outer space.

China’s concerns were formulated after intensive Chinese research over many years into U.S. positions on strategic defense and national security that have been set out in public and leaked documents — most posted on the internet — and in Congressional testimony, as well as discussed in the media and in think tanks.

Until now, however, the U.S. has been insisting that China is simply not serious about the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, but is just trying to block the start of negotiations of a cap on production of fissile material — the stuff needed to ignite nuclear explosions — which the U.S. has been arguing is the only topic ready for disarmament negotiations at the present moment.

The U.S. has also claimed that a 1967 Outer Space Treaty is adequate, but Chinese officials have complained that it only bans weapons of mass destruction in space, while leaving all other matters open.

The U.S. still has more friends and more influence than China in international politics, and a chorus of former Cold War allies shake their heads and make speeches saying that China should be more reasonable and flexible. A number of the 65 member of the Conference on Disarmament have supported the U.S. concession indicating that it would agree to open simple “talks” on space matters in a sub-body.

China has been almost isolated in its stand — but it does have the support of the Russian Federation, which still seems to harbor resentment at the American unilateral renunciation of the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which the U.S. called a Cold War relic. For the U.S., apparently, the ABM Treaty had to go because it posed a legal obstacle to the development of the U.S. “star wars” or “space-based missile defense shield”.

China has said it will agree to discuss a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), which the U.S. wants — but only if the U.S. also agrees to discuss China’s concerns about outer space, “with a view” toward eventual real negotiations. It is very important for China to have U.S. recognition of China’s priorities.

In August 2002, China’s Ambassador HU Xiaodi said in an interview with this reporter that “we already agreed, we Chinese already agreed, to lower our demand, because originally we think it is certainly high time we have to do negotiations to try to work out a real treaty…[and] to a great extent we have already taken into account the view of the Americans. That is, OK, if you say you are not ready to do the negotiations, let’s first try to kind of discuss and to work on the item. But we have to have a clear goal in the future. Our persistent view, our position, is that we regard Outer Space as our top priority issue, and we want real negotiations on that. And for them, they think FMCT is their most urgent issue, their top priority, they want negotiations on that. And for the Group of 21, they regard Nuclear Disarmament as their top priority issue, and they want negotiations on that. In such a situation, in our mind, the really fair way to solve the issue is to give kind of equal treatment to all the three top priority items. Otherwise, you could only have a discriminatory solution. That is definitely an unfair situation. And, now, the Chinese position basically is that, if you agree to our demand on our top priority issue, we will respect your demand on your top priority issue…And, as I said, we already made great concessions. Our original and principled position is that Outer Space should have negotiations“.

One of the favorite private games of European diplomats in the Conference on Disarmament has been to try to second-guess how long the Russian support for China would last — they thought it was faltering for sure on several occasions. A number of observers in Geneva have been more convinced than ever, over the past year, that China has been on the verge of caving in.

The shooting down of its satellite on 11 January may have turned this situation around. In this context, it is not impossible that the test was carried out to settle a dispute over tactics between China’s powerful People’s Liberation Army, for example, and its diplomatic service.

Also interesting, so far, is that the Russian Federation has not betrayed and abandoned China.

The Russian Federation seems, in fact, to be, diplomatically, equally in favor of negotiating both a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and a treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. And, rather than feeling threatened by China’s test, as some analysts suggest, Russia may instead have decided that it is a good occasion to re-state its larger goal of influencing, if not deterring, U.S. efforts to pursue a space-based missile defense shield.

The Associated Press reported from Moscow on 22 January that a leading Russian General — the chief of the Space Forces branch of the military — has said that “A U.S. proposal to install part of its missile defense system in former Warsaw Pact nations (the Czech Republic and Poland, apparently) would be a clear threat to Russia”.

The Conference on Disarmament has been completely stalled for over ten years, since a the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) — which was negotiated in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, but blocked by India’s objection that it maintained nuclear apartheid — was pushed through the UN General Assembly in New York in late 1997. India was not the only member which felt that the CTBT simply prevents any other state from developing nuclear weapons, while maintaining the special status of the five official nuclear-weapons powers (U.S., Russia, China, U.K. and France – by purest coincidence, these are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and the only ones with veto power). The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) says that only states which have conducted nuclear tests prior to 1 January 1967 are nuclear weapons powers; but it also says that peaceful nuclear technology should be shared, and that the five official nuclear weapons powers must work toward eventual total nuclear disarmament — which appears to be quite a long way off.

The NPT, which was originally negotiated to last 25 years after its entry into force in 1970, was extended indefinitely (forever) by a conference of states parties meeting in New York in 1995 — after the extension was blocked in the Conference on Disarmement in Geneva. The Conference on Disarmament operates on a consensus rule, which gives each of its now-65 members a veto. India, among others, objected to an indefinite extension of the NPT, preventing the Conference on Disarmament from taking this decision.

A few months later, in May 1998, first India, then neighboring rival Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests. India has since declared itself a nuclear weapons state, (though Britain archly told India, in the Conference on Disarmament, that this was legalistically impossible, because of the NPT’s definition).

These two precedents may explain the logic of China’s recent move.

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