Unease over China's space aims

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am

China and the US should exchange views on the strategic intentions of each other's military space projects, a US-based China analyst has told Congress. 'We must do so because we know so little about China's intentions,' said Eric Hagt, director of the China programme at the Washington-based World Security institute.

He made the comments to a hearing of the congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on the modernisation of the People's Liberation Army.

China's military space programme has attracted much scrutiny since January 11, when the PLA successfully tested an anti-satellite missile that destroyed an ageing Chinese weather satellite in a low-Earth orbit.

The unannounced test sent shockwaves through Asia and the US military community and ignited debate and suspicion among US military analysts regarding China's strategic goals in space.

Beijing has repeatedly called for a ban on the weaponisation of space. However, many critics now believe that such demands for arms control are only on pretext for China to disguise its own weapons programme.

In testimony earlier in the week, US strategic forces commander General James Cartwright said the January 11 missile test was impressive for the speed with which China had acquired such a capability, and that it 'should be a wake-up call to others' about China's space programme.

Mr Hagt believed the test was a hedge against US dominance of space and said it was imperative that the US engaged with China to avoid further militarisation.

'The [anti-satellite] test and military space programme are fundamentally a response to US goals in space and China is therefore approachable [with regard] to a strategic solution,' said Mr Hagt. 'That window will not stay open forever.'

Analysts have also raised doubts about Beijing's political control over the military space programme, following reports that some senior Chinese leaders had been unaware of the test before it was carried out.

Dean Cheng, an expert at the Centre for Naval Analysis, said it was unclear whether the top leadership had authorised the launch. 'We don't know whether the central party leadership knew or did not know what was going on. The Chinese decision-making process continues to be ill understood,' said Mr Cheng.

Analysts point out that much of the outside understanding of China's strategic intentions for its space programme is still based on open-source information and the writings of a few PLA strategists, which may not reflect Beijing's true military objectives.