Credibility lost in space?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2007, 12:00am

On July 27, 1998, China issued a white paper on defence in which it declared: 'Outer space should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes to benefit mankind.' It added: 'China opposes the development of anti-satellite weapons.' In fact, this had been Beijing's position since the beginning of the 1980s, when it co-sponsored resolutions in the UN on keeping outer space free of weapons.

As recently as last October, when it issued a white paper on its space activities, China asserted that its goals in space are to 'explore outer space', 'enhance understanding' and 'to utilise outer space for peaceful purposes'.

So it comes as something of a shock to hear it has been developing anti-satellite weapons and, in fact, has fired a ballistic missile into space to shoot down one of its own weather satellites in a test of anti-satellite weaponry.

Of course, China is not the first country to test anti-satellite weapons. The United States and the former Soviet Union did this in the 1980s but by conducting this test China has broken a moratorium on aggressive military action in space that had lasted since 1985. Moreover, by doing so it raises questions of its own credibility and whether the world should really believe that its rise will be peaceful.

The latest development lends added significance to an incident reported by US officials last August when a US satellite was 'illuminated' by a mainland laser to blind it from taking pictures.

In the wake of the latest incident, on January 11, the US called the test 'inconsistent with the spirit of co-operation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area'. Washington and some of its followers have demanded an explanation by China of its action.

So far, Beijing has not bothered to explain its actions, although yesterday it did confirm that it carried out the test.

It is certainly understandable if China felt a need to catch up with America and Russia, especially since the US has repeatedly refused to negotiate a treaty to ban the militarisation of space. The last time the issue of talks to prevent an arms race in space was brought to a vote, in December 2005, 160 countries voted for the idea, only to be thwarted by the US.

And last year President George W. Bush signed a space policy which asserted that the US would 'oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space'.

That is the voice of a unilateralist intent on getting its own way, regardless of other countries' interests.

The US hopes that space-based weapons will help the development of a national missile defence programme. If this were successful, it would effectively nullify China's relatively small nuclear arsenal and deprive it of a second-strike capability.

Moreover, Beijing's growing number of missiles across from Taiwan could also be nullified if the US were able to use space-based weapons to erect a shield over the island.

One question now concerns Washington's reaction to Beijing's demonstrated ability to shoot down satellites. It could well trigger the arms race in space that Beijing has opposed for decades. But perhaps even more important is how China will now be viewed by the rest of the world.

Rhetoric over the years has depicted Beijing as being different from other powers - one that espouses moral values rather than power politics. By conducting an anti-satellite weapons test, China may have lost the moral high ground that it has worked so hard to cultivate.

This is a high price to pay for whatever military advantage it may have gained. Many countries may now see China as no different from other big powers and conclude that it is, in fact, more devious by trying to hide its true aims behind high-sounding principles. As of now, neither China nor the US looks too good. The only solution is an international treaty that treats all powers equally.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator