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The ASAT test and China's Space Ambitions

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 12, 2007

    With the successful test of its first anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, China has once again highlighted its impressive achievements in space technology. At the same time, the test is refuelling debate around the world, particularly in the US, between proponents of regulating the use of outer space and those who insist on America's absolute free reign in this realm. But the niggling question with regard to the test is whether this test is a signal aimed at bringing the Americans to the negotiating table for a space-weapons treaty?

    Many experts believe that China conducted the test to compel the US administration to negotiate a treaty forbidding such weapons. Till now, the US vetoed Russian and Chinese proposals in this regard on the ground that it would restrict and violate American "freedom of action" in space. However, according to the 2004 International Union of Concerned Scientists Report, both China and Russia have pushed for an international ban on space weapons since 2002, but the US has refused to negotiate. No current international treaties or agreements prohibit anti-satellite tests. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty mandates notification of manoeuvres in space, and holds countries liable for their actions, meaning commercial operators could sue China for damages if their satellites were to be hit by debris.

    Experts around the world are also debating whether this test is an indication that China intends to take on the US in an arms race in space. It is assumed that China's space aspiration poses significant security concerns for the rest of the world. After the US and the former Soviet Union, China is the first country since 1985 to destroy a satellite in space and only the third country to master this technology. Many scientists and specialists fear that this test is a clear signal that if China can shoot down its own orbiter it could also attack satellites operated by other nations. Though the Chinese government has always argued that most of its space programmes have commercial and scientific purposes, undoubtedly improved space technology will add enough strength to the overall Chinese military strength. In fact, China's space programme, recent military doctrine, and current research efforts indicate that it is taking space very seriously and recognizes the importance of getting control over outer space. As this test faced worldwide reactions and protests, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said "…our principle stand is to promote the peaceful use of space" and "we oppose militarization of space". But this assurance from the Chinese government has not satisfied other countries like Japan, India and particularly the United States, which fears that the surprising anti-satellite test is an attempt by China to start an arms race in space.

    From India's perspective, there is an urgent concern among scientists to review the country's space initiatives. In recent times, though India has shown increasing interest in space technology, nothing much has been concretised to give direction to these interests. More surprisingly, as of now, India does not have a manned space programme. Only in November 2006 did India successfully test an anti-ballistic missile system that used a hit-to-kill vehicle. In a recent discussion on the Chinese ASAT test, DRDO scientists stated that India would take the necessary steps to counter Chinese ASAT capabilities, including through the use of ballistic missiles. But the real concern is that the Chinese military can threaten the imaging and reconnaissance satellites operated by the US, Japan, Russia, Israel, India and Europe. This test gives an advantage to the Chinese to track and destroy US spy satellites. Former advisor to DRDO and Director of IDSA, K. Santhanam expressed serious concerns about china's ASAT test when he said that "China's ASAT test is definitely a concern for all countries with satellite launch capabilities. Satellites, after all, form an important part of C3I (communications, command, control and intelligence) systems."

    As part of its future space plan, China is working on a new version of its long-range rocket, which is expected to be ready for testing in 2008. Also, in another major plan, China is engaged in setting up an 80-hectare centre for developing rockets and satellites in South-West Shanghai. Many Indian scientists argue that China is working on several types of "new concept" weapons systems, includes radio frequency (RF) weapons, which can be used effectively with this new satellite programme.

    Looking at the future, Chinese researchers are giving prime importance to the field of space debris research work. The focus at the moment is to reduce space debris and protect space objects, especially manned spacecraft. According to Guo Baozhu, vice-administrator of China's National Space Administration, in the near future, "Chinese researchers will go in-depth in all aspects of space debris research." Going further, Luan Enjie, director of the Chinese National Space Administration, outlines that steps have been taken for an unmanned lunar programme, which involves one or more lunar orbit missions in the near future.

    The long-term Chinese objectives are to establish a strategic balance with countries like the United States and Russia, and to break up their monopoly on utilization of space. In fact, China's apparent success in conducting this anti-satellite test signals that its rising military intends to contest US supremacy in space. It will certainly help in weakening America's capabilities in information warfare. At the same time, Chinese security officials have a clear understanding of the way that the United States envisions the use of space in future strategic arrangements.

    To boost its space capabilities further, Beijing is spending relatively significant government resources and, moreover, has increased defence spending by 10 per cent every year since 1990. Liu Jibin, the Chinese minister for the Commission of Technology and Industry for National Defence says that "space development is a reflection of comprehensive national strength." Thus, if economic conditions were to remain robust, space expenditure, whether for military or civil purposes, will remain a prime factor in China's future space policy.