Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:15 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 18:15 | SYDNEY

Message in a rocket


Sam Roggeveen


20 November 2007 09:07

We've been misinterpreting China's 11 January test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, according to two China experts. The conventional wisdom has been that the test, in which a ground-based missile destroyed an orbiting but decommisioned Chinese weather satellite, was intended to send a message to the US about the vulnerability of its satellites, which would have a crucial role if the US intervened militarily in a dispute over Taiwan.  Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey Lewis argue there is a technocratic explanation for the test: China only wanted to try out the technology, and really hadn't thought through the political implications. In fact, given that the US had said nothing about two earlier 'fly-by' tests, China probably thought a test in which the missile actually hit the satellite wouldn't create too much fuss.

Carnegie's own rundown of the Kulacki-Lewis conference presentation plays a straight bat, but when you read Global Security Newswire's version you realise there were some fireworks in the Q&A:

“How can [China’s antisatellite effort] not be directed at the United States when there’s nothing else worth shooting at?” John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org asked from the audience at this week’s event.  “How can they possibly be designing this system — how could they possibly be figuring out how many do we need, how high do they have to go and all of that other kind of stuff — if it was not directed at the Americans?

“If it’s not a central part of their war-winning strategy or their least implausible theory of victory on Taiwan, why isn’t it?” he continued.  “It’s a good idea!”

In the interview this week, Lewis termed Pike’s approach “fatalism.”

“You can make guesses about the fact that we’re their primary adversary, that there’s a serious potential point of conflict over Taiwan, [and] that both sides are obviously preparing for the possibility for conflict over that,” Kulacki said at the panel discussion.  “But I don’t think you can make a definitive claim about one particular test or event being directed at the United States and prove it.”

He added that a lack of certainty on this point “creates a potential for dialogue.”  Conversely, “if you assume that you must know that it’s against us, that obviously greatly restricts the potential for dialogue and you’ve closed off a potential avenue of resolving an important issue.”

Pike remained unconvinced.

“That makes no sense,” he said.

I can see Pike's argument. He thinks technological determinism doesn't really explain why China pursued this technology over many others. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the decision to continue ASAT research was a policy choice based at least in part on a perception of American vulnerability.

Then again, the US has more accountable and transparent military procurement mechanisms than China, yet it still winds up funding ludicrously expensive programs with only the thinnest strategic justification, just because they have a certain bureaucratic momentum and the right political backing. Why should we assume China is incapable of the same?