Courtesy Reuters

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

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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?

This would not be the first time that the PLA concealed its operations from other parts of the Chinese security and foreign policy apparatus. In April 2001, soon after a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided, it became apparent that the Chinese military was not fully disclosing what it knew about the incident. Military authorities on Hainan Island, where the EP-3 was forced to land, did not provide full or accurate details of the incident to Beijing -- especially not to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- frustrating efforts by U.S. and Chinese diplomats to resolve the crisis.

Similarly, in early 2003, the PLA at first suppressed information about the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), even though military doctors in the Guangzhou Military Region had been aware of an outbreak in southern China since January. Even when SARS spread to major military hospitals in Beijing in late February and early March, the PLA did not report these cases to civilian authorities. The news broke out only after a whistle-blowing PLA doctor informed the media that one hospital had 60 SARS patients and had had six SARS-related deaths. The information appeared in Time magazine in early April, prompting the Chinese government to mobilize to confront SARS and deal with the PLA's cover-up.

Even today, information remains a highly prized and seldom-shared commodity in China's Leninist system. The Chinese government is stovepiped: the most critical linkages across agencies take place at the very top, with little horizontal communication or information sharing at the lower, working levels of government. In fact, Chinese bureaucrats tend to hoard information to ensure that rivals cannot manipulate it to their advantage. Although this dynamic is found in all bureaucracies, the current Chinese system takes it to an extreme. The PLA, which has long had considerable leeway to carry out its business as it saw fit, remains a particularly compartmentalized and secretive structure.

Does this mean that the PLA operates as a rogue organization? No. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still controls the gun. Hu Jintao -- who simultaneously heads the PLA (as chair of the Central Military Commission), the CCP (as its general secretary), and the state (as the country's president) -- straddles the main parts of the political hierarchy. As the only civilian on the Central Military Commission, the country's most important civil-military communication node, Hu plays a singularly critical role. He was undoubtedly aware of and supportive of the ASAT testing program.

But after obtaining explanations from Chinese diplomats about the ASAT test in January, officials from the United States and around the world concluded that the leaders of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not been informed of -- much less consulted about -- it in advance. It took the ministry nearly two weeks to come out with a terse acknowledgment and explanation. Even as late as ten days after the incident, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said that he had "not received any confirmed information" about it. Chinese diplomats called in to explain themselves to governments around the world were often at a loss; they, too, were in the dark.

FIELD OF DEBRIS

Regardless of who knew what when, the test can only fuel mounting concerns about China as a potential military threat. Vice President Dick Cheney has said that the "antisatellite test, and China's continued fast-paced military buildup ... are not consistent with China's stated goal of a 'peaceful rise.'" Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the incident was "troubling"; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace called it "very worrisome." To Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), it was a "threat," a "provocation," and a "wake-up call."

It also seems to have been something of a surprise. For years, Chinese nuclear strategists had been quietly warning their U.S. counterparts that the PLA was working toward acquiring an ASAT capability. The most recent test was part of an ongoing series of ASAT trials, including one involving laser weapons that blind satellites. But the 2006 Pentagon report on the PLA's modernization appears to have underestimated China's capabilities: it claimed that China could destroy or disable a satellite only by attacking it with a nuclear-armed missile. In January, the PLA successfully tracked and destroyed a satellite with a direct, kinetic impact, suggesting that it was further along than the U.S. government had assumed.

This realization surely will prompt more scrutiny of China's aerospace programs. The ASAT incident has already breathed new life into U.S. missile defense projects and the development of advanced technologies to counter the threat that China and other countries may pose to U.S. space-based assets. And it will strengthen arguments for proposed regulations that would impose tough export controls and further restrict high-tech trade with China, particularly in aerospace and information technologies.

The ASAT test has also cast doubt on China's reliability as a global partner. China's move, many informed observers believe, has generated and thrown into orbit more space debris than any other single human event, putting at risk China's own satellites and those of other countries for decades to come. In performing the test, Beijing not only demonstrated its capacity to threaten U.S. military assets in space but also showed a lack of concern for other countries' interest in the safe operation of satellites for day-to-day civilian activities, such as weather forecasting, financial transactions, and telephone calls.

None of this bodes well for relations between the United States and China. Even before the ASAT test, these were moving into a more difficult phase. Although the two sides managed to maintain a relatively stable relationship over the past two years, new concerns had arisen. Greater attention has been focused recently on China's diplomatic activity in places such as Southeast Asia and Africa. The new Democratic Congress in the United States is likely to pressure the Bush administration to confront China on a range of economic problems, from the growing U.S. trade deficit to China's currency manipulation and violations of intellectual property rights. As the presidency of George W. Bush -- now a lame duck with low popularity ratings -- winds down and the U.S. election cycle picks up, partisans on both the left and the right will be quicker to criticize China for its poor human rights record and its efforts to beef up its military and will demand tougher responses from the White House (or promise to deliver them if they are in power). The ASAT test will do nothing to dispel the pervading mistrust between the two countries.

Already, it has undermined recent progress on U.S.-Chinese space cooperation. After Presidents Bush and Hu proposed strengthening such ties during an April 2006 summit in Washington, a congressional delegation visited the Jiuquan launch site last summer and the head of NASA went to China in September -- two firsts in the history of the states' relations. Cooperation of this type is now off the table. NASA's relatively muted official response to the ASAT test was that "China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the constructive relationship that our presidents have outlined." The subtext, however, was that moving ahead on a cooperative agenda -- already an uphill fight -- will now face tremendous political opposition, especially on Capitol Hill.

CHINESE PUZZLE

Besides obvious concerns about China's military intentions and the wreckage now orbiting the earth, the ASAT test raises broad strategic questions. Is the lack of transparency in Beijing's official decision-making undermining its increasingly complex and ambitious foreign and security policy agenda? Are the official interlocutors ostensibly representing Chinese policy actually in the loop? Can the world expect Beijing to be a reliable player, or will there be more bad surprises ahead?

For years, Chinese foreign policy elites have discussed the possibility of creating a kind of national security council in order to better coordinate day-to-day foreign and security policy. Some have argued that Dai Bingguo, who is the number two at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as a senior figure in the CCP's international relations network and a member of the party's Central Committee, is well situated to act as a bridge across key parts of the security and foreign policy bureaucracy. Despite these credentials, however, it is doubtful that Dai has the clout needed to carry out that role effectively. More important, it is unclear whether the PLA is prepared to cede much information or decision-making authority to a more consultative process. If greater factionalism emerges within the CCP in the future, such a mechanism would be rendered even more ineffective.

Meanwhile, hopes are mounting in Washington and in other key capitals that China can play the role of a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, as former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has put it. But as the ASAT test and other similar developments suggest, well-formulated pledges from some voices in the Chinese system can be circumvented and actively undermined by others. This is not a new problem, nor is Beijing the only government to face it. But China today matters more than ever, and disruptions emanating from it -- a provocative military act, the emergence of a deadly disease, toxic environmental disasters, unsafe business practices -- have far more potential than before to have unforeseen strategic repercussions well beyond the country's borders.

For better or worse, even as Washington and Beijing eye each other increasingly warily, their futures seem destined to become more deeply entwined and their relations to profoundly affect global security and prosperity for decades to come. But if internal decision-making in either capital is not well coordinated and carefully thought through, or if communication between the two governments is poor, unexpected incidents could quickly spin out of control. This is particularly true when incidents involve the countries' militaries or have military implications: China and the United States are already the two world powers most actively planning for a potential conflict with each other.

For Beijing, preventing miscommunication will require better controlling the signals it sends to its neighbors and the United States. It is up to the leadership in Beijing to decide how to do this -- by showing a greater willingness to break through the country's legendary stovepiped bureaucracy, by establishing a more effective interagency process, by bringing more key players from across the security and foreign policy bureaucracy to engage with international partners, by strengthening the hand of state ministries and reining in the PLA. All of these would be difficult undertakings. But China's growing weight in world affairs means that Beijing must do more to demonstrate its stated intentions. In the meantime, the United States -- and much of the rest of the world -- will be left wondering what kind of partner China can actually be.

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