Five years ago, China conducted its first anti-satellite (ASAT) test – on January 11, 2007. Exactly three years later, China conducted a second ASAT test, which Beijing referred to as a missile defence test, on January 11, 2010.
Three years from then, whether China plans to do another ASAT test is the rumour that is doing the rounds in global circles.
One of the first reports in October said that China will conduct a test targeting satellites at higher orbits, potentially hitting at reconnaissance and navigation satellites. Some of the US intelligence sources had suggested in that report that Beijing was delaying the test until the US elections were over because they did not want to spoil Obama’s chances for a second term. The Chinese may not have been excited about a Republican Administration that could have been far more conservative on space security and arms control issues than Obama. Meanwhile, the Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun played down the speculation and made a short comment at one of the regular news briefings to say that “such reports did not conform to the fact.”
However, the Chinese Global Times editorial of January 06 was much more upbeat and jingoistic about the rumours, saying, “hopefully, the speculation about China’s anti-satellite tests is true.” The same editorial also highlighted that China’s “public policy is the peaceful use of space,” which raises questions about the real intentions of its space program. The editorial went on to suggest that Beijing is against any kind of arms race in space, evident in the Russia-China proposal submitted in 2008.
As per the editorial, the Chinese seemed to have planned it all well as to how they should respond to the international hue and cry when they do the test. Even as they claimed to be unclear about the Chinese plans to do the test, the editorial notes, “China should continue substantive research on striking satellites. It can avoid the controversy of whether this action violates the peaceful use of space by doing so under the aegis of developing anti-missile defence systems.”
Citing government and intelligence sources, some of the international media reports suggest that China may be using a Dong-Ning-2 (DN-2) direct ascent anti-satellite missile. DN-2, the latest anti-satellite missile developed by the PLA, scheduled for testing originally in October/ November 2012 is considered to be a high-earth orbit interceptor capable of destroying satellites by colliding at high-speed, in other words with kinetic impact. A Report in Taipei Times raised concerns about the missile test as it can target US spy satellites providing an early warning message to Taiwan of any imminent attack, as well as other satellites that would be used in conducting military operations in the theatre. Most reconnaissance and navigation satellites fly at high-earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit, at a distance of around 35,000 km from Earth. If the missile test is done successfully, it will be a major advancement as far as Chinese satellite strike capabilities are concerned, with some calling it a major “counter space” weapon.
Meanwhile, there were a few reports in the international media which said that China may not actually do a test because it will produce a large amount of debris which will hurt China too, given their greater reliance on space assets today. Particularly with their navigation system Beidou operationalised, Beijing may not continue with more such destructive tests, creating additional debris and increasing the chances of collisions. However, if the editorial was anything to go by, it indicates a totally different orientation to China’s space program.
Fresh anticipation of the Chinese ASAT came about after a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists last month, which talked about an announcement within the Chinese government circles about a planned ASAT test. However, questions about when, how and whether China will actually conduct a test or not is a matter of speculation with no Chinese open source talking about the test.
As mentioned in the Global Times editorial as well as other official statements, China’s emphasis has been on space arms race. No doubt, an arms race in space will be an issue in the future. However, there are more pressing challenges that face the space domain today which do not get the same attention in Chinese plans. Worse, some of China’s space activities are contributing to worsening of the space environment. Space debris, which is a bigger issue today is often underplayed by China. If Beijing were to conduct another ASAT test there will be a significant increase in the space debris that has already reached dangerous levels. Space debris is an issue that China refuses to take up in any international code of conduct, neither is it a subject addressed in the draft proposal that China and Russia have submitted.
PAROS (Prevention of An Arms Race in Outer Space) has also remained on the Chinese agenda, again with the focus on arms races and with no mention of the debris issue.
Along with arms races, the China-Russia emphasis has been on placement of weapons in outer space. But the bigger challenge today is ground-based weapons that can target assets in outer space, which has heightened the fears about the weaponisation of outer space. The Chinese testing of DN-2 could up the ante in Asia, which is already witnessing a heightened phase of military modernisation and could spark an arms race in space. Given the history of the region, such developments are ominous.
All of these points out to the need to draw certain red lines in the outer space domain that would bring about restraint in such activities and capabilities. Future normative exercise in an effort to establish a space code of conduct or a more binding mechanism should pay attention to defining activities and capabilities that will be construed as irresponsible behaviour. Such codification would go a long way in establishing deterrence in outer space. The need for dialogue at bilateral, regional and global levels as channels of communication and as CBM initiatives is real and should be pursued keeping in view the myriad of challenges facing the outer space domain.
- ‘China’s Anti-Satellite Weapon A ‘Trump Card’ Against US’ (seattle-gadgets.tumblr.com)
- Chinese ASAT Missile Test Looms (freebeacon.com)
- China launches two satellites on one rocket (chinadailymail.com)