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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (January 24, 2007)

Sino-US Conflict: Wrestling with the Spectre of an Arms Race in Space

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray (London-based historian and commentator on Asian affairs)

China's anti-satellite missile test might appear to mark a dramatic about-face from its decade-long denunciation of weapons in space. Arguably, however, the controversy would never have occurred if the US had heeded international calls - China's voice being the loudest - for a treaty to protect space. That bid having failed, Beijing's move must be seen as a defensive response to American intransigence.

Significantly, India, regarded as China's key Asian competitor, is not worried. In contrast to spats in China's equation with the United States, the course of Sino-Indian relations shows how differences can be managed to mutual gain. Predictably, the barrage of criticism came from Japan, Britain and Australia, which follow the US lead in such matters.

The US is seething not only because it uses space the most for military purposes but also because the destroyed Chinese satellite operated at an altitude that the Pentagon's military satellites commonly use. US and Nato forces depend completely on them. Given that 83 per cent of coalition communications during the Iraq war were satellite-based, the US might well feel vulnerable.

Nine years ago, China issued a policy guideline stating that space belongs to all mankind and ought to be used only for peaceful purposes. Since then, it has repeatedly urged Washington to create a binding international agreement on the prevention of a space arms race. A Sino-Russian working paper published by the UN in 2002 also called for such a ban.

As recently as June last year, Foreign Ministry official Tang Guoqiang reiterated the position by stating: "Outer space is the common heritage of mankind, and weaponisation of outer space is bound to trigger off an arms race, thus rendering outer space a new arena for military confrontation."

The US response was the National Space Policy Document, published last August, whose guiding principle is that "freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power".

The document stated baldly that the US would "ensure that space capabilities are available in time to further US national security, homeland security, and foreign policy objectives". Moreover, a fundamental goal outlined is to "enable unhindered US operations in and through space to defend our interests there".

The policy statement calls upon the defence secretary to "develop capabilities, plans and options to ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries".

China's response was immediate. Within days, a US spy satellite overflying China was "illuminated" by lasers to blind it against taking pictures. Lasers are the precursor to firing an anti-satellite missile. Now China has proved it has this capability, after being forced into military competition in space.

Having opted to pursue economic, not military, rivalry in space, India successfully launched the civilian PSLV-C7 rocket just this month. Its payload, including Indonesian and Argentinean satellites, pointed to the possibilities of profitable commercial co-operation among the less developed nations. India hopes to capture a share of the global satellite-launch market which is dominated by Russia, the US and the European Space Agency.

This is not to deny an element of political competition between the two Asian giants, but the latest developments over Tibet and Sikkim, among other issues, indicate they are not indifferent to each other's sensitivities. Regular meetings at the highest level - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has accepted an invitation to visit China this year - also suggest that economic competition is being used by both sides to reinforce political ties.

Continuing talks on resolving the complex border dispute, over which India and China fought a brief war in 1962, have not stopped either government taking constructive action, including opening a third trading point along the disputed border last year. Bilateral trade was a paltry US$1 billion in 1995. Last year's figure probably crossed the US$20 billion mark, prompting President Hu Jintao, during his recent visit to India, to double the target for 2010 to US$40 billion.

This is far from unrealistic, as Sino-Indian trade is growing at an annual 32 per cent and Indian firms are benefiting handsomely from Chinese contracts. China is now India's second-largest trading partner.

Sino-Indian and Sino-US relations present an essay in contrast. Both are competitive, but whereas mutual accommodation makes the former productive, mutual mishandling compounds friction in the latter.

(Originally appeared in the January 23, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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