China's Space Odyssey: What the Antisatellite Test Reveals About Decision-Making in Beijing

Since China's destruction of one of its weather satellites with a ballistic missile this past January, experts around the world have puzzled over the move's purpose. One widespread view is that the antisatellite (ASAT) test was a shot across the bow of U.S. military power. Beijing's strategists have argued for years that it needs to develop asymmetric capabilities in order to close the widening gap between the United States' military might and China's own and prepare for a possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait. With the United States now depending so heavily on assets in space for real-time communications, battlefield awareness, weapons targeting, intelligence gathering, and reconnaissance, the Chinese rocket launch may have been an attempt to show Washington how Beijing can overcome its handicap in a relatively simple way.

Other analysts have argued that the test was a ham-fisted attempt to focus international attention on the need to ban weapons in space. For more than a decade, particularly as U.S. missile defense plans and deployments have accelerated, Beijing has repeatedly urged participants in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament to hammer out a multilateral treaty to ban space weapons (the proposal is known as the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, or PAROS, treaty). But the United States has consistently resisted such negotiations out of a concern that they would constrain U.S. dominance in space.

Both these explanations only raise more questions. Why did Beijing act when it did? Why would China carry out such a provocation when it has so painstakingly built up its image as a "peacefully rising" country and a "responsible great power" seeking a more "harmonious world"? What kind of a counterpart is China?

The real answer may be simpler -- and more disturbing. Put bluntly, Beijing's right hand may not have known what its left hand was doing. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) and its strategic rocket forces most likely proceeded with the ASAT testing program without consulting other key parts of the Chinese security and foreign policy bureaucracy -- at least not those parts with which most foreigners are familiar. This may be a more troubling prospect than anything the test might have revealed about China's military ambitions or arms control objectives.

A ROGUE ORGANIZATION?

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