Shadow Government

China’s satellite killer

In January 2007, China conducted the first successful test of its ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) system, destroying a derelict Chinese weather satellite and producing tens of thousands of pieces of debris that will present a hazard to space navigation for years to come. The Bush administration reacted strongly to the test, as did space-faring nations across the ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

In January 2007, China conducted the first successful test of its ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) system, destroying a derelict Chinese weather satellite and producing tens of thousands of pieces of debris that will present a hazard to space navigation for years to come. The Bush administration reacted strongly to the test, as did space-faring nations across the globe, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the European Union. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was caught flat-footed, first denying that the test had occurred and then, nearly two weeks later, issuing a bland statement.

In January 2010, China apparently conducted another successful test of its ASAT under the pretext of a ballistic missile defense experiment (even though the Defense Department’s most recent report on Chinese military power does not discuss such a program). This time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was ready, announcing not only that, "The test was defensive in nature and targeted at no country," but also helpfully noting that "The test would neither produce space debris in orbit nor pose a threat to the safety of orbiting spacecraft."

And this time, the Obama administration has bought the Chinese line. The administration characterizes the test as a "BMD" test, echoing rather than challenging the Chinese narrative. But was it?

Whether the test was actually part of a BMD program, a continuation of China’s ASAT program, or both, has considerable importance to the United States, its allies, and its friends. Is China continuing to develop the ability to destroy the satellites upon which the United States and other space-faring nations depend for both military and civilian missions? Is China seeking the ability to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles, even as it decries American programs to do the same? Or both?

The Chinese "BMD" test deserves Congressional scrutiny. Does China possess a major ballistic missile defense program, or is it using such a program as a guise to continue to threaten U.S. satellites? And what has the Obama administration done to address these programs? 

The Chinese also need to do more to shed light on their activities. If China is in fact developing a BMD system, then it should be willing to share its plans for deployment with the United States and the international community, much as the United States has. Against what threats is China planning? How large a defensive system will it deploy and when? Why, in Beijing’s view, are Chinese defenses stabilizing and American defenses destabilizing?

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