The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

FY-1C illustration
The West knows how China destroyed its FY-1C satellite (above) in January, but still does not understand why China conducted the ASAT test. (credit: CNSA)

The Chinese ASAT enigma

Nearly four months ago, a Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) weapon destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite in polar orbit, igniting a controversy that has yet to fully settle down. The test generated sharp condemnation from the United States and many other nations, who expressed concern about both the threat the debris cloud created from the test posed to spacecraft currently in orbit, including the International Space Station, as well as the potential threat such weapons could pose to their own satellites.

Since the test, a number of key questions about it have been answered: what satellite was destroyed, and when, and how. However, some major issues remain unresolved, including why China conducted such a destructive test, and why the Chinese government denied carrying out the test for days after news of the test became public. The lack of firm answers to those fundamental questions has made it difficult for Western governments and analysts to put the test in its proper perspective.

“ASAT tests don’t just happen,” said Cheng. “The system works by consensus, so you probably talked all of this through and got buy-in fairly early on in the process.”

Some have argued that the test is evidence of a lack of communication among various parts of the Chinese government, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carrying out the test without the knowledge of the Chinese Foreign Ministry or other parts of the government. “Put bluntly, Beijing’s right hand may not have known what its left hand was doing,” write Bates Gill and Martin Kleiber of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in an essay in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. “This may be a more troubling prospect than anything the test might have revealed about China's military ambitions or arms control objectives.”

While that has been a common explanation regarding why the Foreign Ministry appeared to be caught flatfooted immediately after news of the test leaked out, others think that the Chinese government, in general, knew about these tests in advance. “ASAT tests don’t just happen,” said Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst for CNA Corporation, at a May 2 forum in Washington on global space security sponsored by Women In Aerospace (WIA). “The system works by consensus, so you probably talked all of this through and got buy-in fairly early on in the process.”

Cheng noted that there’s evidence that the January test was preceded by at least two others that failed to hit a satellite, either because they were failures or they were deliberately aimed away from target satellites. “You had your debate, your knockdown, drag-out bureaucracy fight, some time in the past,” before the first of the ASAT tests a couple years ago, he said, offering his own opinion of what the Chinese decision-making process was. “Given the absence of international, not just American, reaction to any of those tests, I would submit in all likelihood when the test was scheduled for January 11, it probably appeared somewhere on page 47 of the agenda for this month’s Politburo standing committee meeting.”

“The Chinese, I think, miscalculated what the reaction would be of the world” to the ASAT test, said James Lewis, a senior fellow at CSIS, during the WIA forum. If the Foreign Ministry was truly not informed about the ASAT test in advance, “that means they truly hadn’t thought through the political consequences.” Those consequences included “irritating” their three major neighbors—India, Japan, and Russia—and damaging their international credibility. “You can’t spend a decade telling people that everything you do in space is peaceful, and then ‘accidentally’ blow up a satellite.”

However, once news of the test did become public, why did the Chinese government take so long to own up to it, denying it for days before later admitting to it? Cheng saw some parallels between the Chinese response to the ASAT test and its handling of the 2001 collision between a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter, triggering an international incident. In both cases the Chinese government took over a week to make a rational response, but at least with the EP-3 incident, Cheng noted, China had the excuse of having to respond to an unplanned event. “It does suggest… that the Chinese are not quick on their feet,” he said. “But eventually the system does work its way through to an answer which they will then stick to.”

That lack of transparency in the decision-making process is a cause for concern for the US, Cheng noted. “For a nuclear superpower, for a nation that we do negotiate with, and have ties to, both economic and strategic, that should be very, very worrisome,” he said. “When we think about the Chinese, we need to recognize that we are dealing with a country that, when we negotiate and when we interact with them, we’re not always really sure we’re talking to the right people, or if we’re familiar with their interests.”

“The Chinese, I think, miscalculated what the reaction would be of the world” to the ASAT test, said Lewis. Keeping the Foreign Ministry in the dark “means they truly hadn’t thought through the political consequences.”

That, in turn, poses an obstacle for any future arms control negotiations with the Chinese regarding space weaponization. “The Soviets and we worked out, over 40 years, a set of skills in how to do arms control,” Lewis said, something that China, because of its inexperience in this realm, lacks. “The notion of transparency, of confidence-building measures, none of them are in place,” he said. If the US and China started talking now on these issues, “perhaps in five or ten years we would be at a level where at least it would be easier to work with them.”

“The idea of at least talking to the Chinese on space would seem to be one of those things that would be a good idea, and if nothing else we might actually get some insight into how they do things and who makes their decisions,” said Cheng. However, he said that the US and China approach negotiations differently, with the US working up through confidence-building measures while China starts with principles and works down. “The first step in cooperation, really, is to talk more with them at all levels and to engage, and to also keep your hand on your wallet.”

Regardless of the inexperience and cultural difficulties, Lewis was skeptical about the effectiveness of arms control in general with regards to space weaponization, noting the difficulties in verifying compliance with any accord. He also believes that the current venue for space arms control, the UN, is inadequate. “Working in the UN is not an effective way to approach this problem, because you basically have six countries that are involved, that have skin in the game, and then you have 155 straphangers,” he said, many of whom are hostile to the US for one reason or another.

The ASAT test, and the Chinese reaction to it, serves as a stark reminder that China is not like the US, Russia, or other countries. “The Chinese space program is not a mirror image of the American or Soviet programs,” with different capabilities and motivations, said Cheng. “China acts according to Chinese interests, and not simply in reaction to US actions or non-actions.” However, without understanding—or being able to understand—what those interests are, and how China makes its decisions on how to act, its activities and intentions in space may continue to remain an enigma for years to come.