China’s Satellite Killer

22 January 2007

China’s Satellite Killer

By Gwynne Dyer

The PLA commander stirred. “Comrade President, the Chinese people have always been a proud race. The Party and the People are united to restore China as the hegemon. Unemployment and poverty are nothing to that, bending the Peripheral Nations to our will.”

Comrade General, you must be mad,” blurted another Politburo member. “You are talking about war — endless wars — all over the region.”

“No, comrade, I am not. I am saying that if we topple one domino, the others will fall of their own accord.”

From “Showdown: Why China Wants

War With The United States,” by Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake, Washington, 2006

There is an thriving little industry in the United States that produces magazine articles with titles like “The Coming War with China” and “How We Will Fight China,” plus the occasional full-length book like Babbin and Timperlake’s fictionalised scenario for a US-Chinese war. The “Chinese military build-up” is now a regular feature in the documents that the Pentagon produces each year to justify its budget demands — and now we have the dreaded Chinese satellite killer.

The website of the specialist magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology was the first to break the news: “Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite, launched in 1999, was attacked by an asat (anti-satellite) system launched from or near the Xichang space centre.” On 11 January, China tested its first satellite-killer, and immediately afterwards the protests began to rain down.

“The US believes China’s testing and development of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space arena,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “We and other countries have expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.”

The usual suspects chimed in with identical condemnations of China’s action. Australian foreign minister Alex Downer observed that “a capacity to shoot down satellites in outer space is not consistent with…the traditional Chinese position of opposition to the militarisation of outer space.” In Britain, prime minister Tony Blair read from the same script, saying that the test was “inconsistent with the spirit of China’s statement to the UN and other bodies on the military use of space.”

Fair comment, since for the past decade China has been advocating a binding international treaty on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (Paros). But what China did is certainly not inconsistent with the traditional American position on the militarisation of outer space, which is that it’s okay as long as we do it. (The first US test of an anti-satellite weapon was 22 years ago.)

China has been pushing for a treaty demilitarising space for ten years, and for ten years the United States, which is vastly superior in space technology, has been refusing it. Of course, the Chinese may just be using the Bush administration’s dogmatic hostility to any arms limitation treaty as a way to make themselves look good, while they really play exactly the same game as the Pentagon. Who knows? Manipulation and deceit are second nature to human beings — indeed, to all the higher primates. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the nature of the game.

The strategic point of a satellite-killing missile is that it can deprive the opponent of his electronic eyes and his ability to control an entire battle zone in real time. (83 percent of the communications of the invading forces passed through satellites during the invasion of Iraq.) Being able to kill American satellites would be an important equaliser if China ever had to confront the US Seventh Fleet in the Strait of Taiwan.

But be realistic: China could never down all the American satellites. There are some 300 of them in low orbits that would have to be dealt with, and in a few hours the Xichang launch site would be smoking rubble. The surviving US satellites would take over the command-and-control function, American stealth aircraft would take over the reconnaissance, and it would all play out just about the same way as the current Taiwan crisis scenarios assume — except that a target deep within China, Xichang, had been hit.

Now we’re talking homelands, so it’s getting frightening,.but don’t panic. They’ll never let it get out of control. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are indissolubly bound together by trade, and war is inconceivable.

Maybe, but consider these remarks by Will Hutton, whose book on contemporary China, “The Writing on the Wall,” was published in Britain this month. “Very few [people elsewhere] understand the Bismarckian, pre-1914 feel to Asian great power politics….Asia is a powder keg of competing nationalisms, battles for scarce energy resources and unresolved mutual enmities….It is no longer scaremongering to warn of the small but growing risk of a devastating Asian war.”

China doesn’t want such a war. Neither does the United States, or Japan, or anybody else. But nobody wanted the First World War, either. It came, as contemporaries said, “out of a clear blue sky.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The usual…space”;and “China…game”)