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

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