Motives and Implications Behind China’s ASAT Test

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 2

The United States government revealed on January 18 that the Chinese military had conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test against an aging Chinese weather satellite. The satellite was destroyed on January 11 by a medium-range ballistic missile at an altitude of 537 miles above the earth’s surface. Despite Washington’s private consultations over the matter with Beijing before the announcement, the Chinese government waited five days after the announcement to officially confirm the test, stating that there are no plans to conduct a second test and that the “test was not targeted against any country and does not pose a threat to any country” (The Washington Post, January 23). The January 11 kinetic kill vehicle (KKV) test, coupled with the revelation last year that a U.S. satellite was “painted” by a Chinese ground-based laser presents unsettling questions about China’s commitment to arms control, the ramifications of its rise as a major power, its military posture and foreign policy toward the United States and civil-military relations in China.

China’s Changed Stance on Space Weapons

China’s ASAT test calls into question its longstanding opposition to space weapons. In the past, China has proposed a treaty language obligating countries “not to place in orbit around the earth any object carrying any kinds of weapon; not to deploy such weapons on celestial bodies nor station such weapons in outer space in any other manner; and not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects” [1].

Even as late as June 2006, Cheng Jingye, China’s Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs, in a statement on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament stated: “The deployment of weapons in outer space would bring unimaginable consequences. The outer space assets of all countries would be endangered, mankind’s peaceful use of outer space threatened, and international peace and security undermined. It is in the interest of all countries to protect the humanity from the threat of outer space weapons.” Ambassador Cheng also equated the abolition of space weapons with the abolition of weapons of mass destruction [2].

Interestingly, the first inkling that the Chinese had changed their position on space weapons may have come from their most recent defense white paper released in December 2006. The document failed to mention China’s opposition to space weapons as previous editions had. In its 2004 defense white paper, China stated, “Outer space is the common property of mankind. China hopes that the international community would take action as soon as possible to conclude an international legal instrument on preventing the weaponization of an arms race in outer space through negotiations, to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.” In its 2002 defense white paper, China was even more strident in its call for a ban on space weapons, stating: “the international community should negotiate and conclude the necessary legal instrument as soon as possible to prohibit the deployment of weapons in outer space and the use or the threat of use of force against objects in outer space.”

The test also undermines China’s efforts at international space cooperation, especially in regards to space debris mitigation. China participates in the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee and published a Space Debris Action Plan to increase the safety of spaceflight, in particular the safety of its human spaceflight missions. One expert estimated that the test might have broken the satellite into 800 pieces measuring four inches wide or larger and millions of smaller pieces. Trackable debris resulting from a U.S. KKV test in 1985 took 17 years to completely deorbit and forced the United States to reconsider using “hard kill” methods due to the possibility of unintentionally damaging U.S. or third-party satellites (The New York Times, January 19). The ASAT test may have also setback efforts at U.S.-China space cooperation. A White House spokesperson seemed to hold out that possibility, stating, “We do want cooperation on a civil space strategy, so until we hear back from them or have more information, I don’t have any more to add” (AFP, January 19).

Possible Motives

Lacking an official explanation from the Chinese government, analysts are forced to divine Beijing’s motives. China’s actions do not appear to be aimed at coercing the United States to negotiate a space weapons treaty. If this were the case, it would seem that the Foreign Ministry would have issued a statement immediately following the test’s revelation. In fact, despite private consultations in Washington and Beijing prior to the U.S. announcement, the Foreign Ministry initially appeared ignorant of the matter. In contrast, when China detonated its first nuclear weapon in October 1964, its official statement read: “The Chinese Government hereby solemnly proposes to the governments of the world that a summit conference of all the countries of the world be convened to discuss the questions of the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, and that as the first step, the summit conference conclude an agreement to the effect that the nuclear powers and those countries which may soon become nuclear powers undertake not to use nuclear weapons either against non-nuclear countries and nuclear-free zones or against each other” [3].

The lack of coordinated action by the Chinese government suggests that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) either is acting alone in this matter or has such influence or acts with such little supervision that it can take significant actions without notifying other government organizations or even the top Chinese leadership. Interviews in Beijing by U.S. scholars strongly suggest, for example, that the PLA Navy did not tell the Foreign Ministry that it was planning to transit a Han-class nuclear submarine through Japanese waters in November 2004. The ASAT program may be too highly classified to have informed the Foreign Ministry about the test, and in the culture of extreme secrecy that permeates the Chinese government, it may be unwilling to even acknowledge the test.

Indeed, U.S. officials have expressed concern that the delayed response from the Chinese government may indicate that even President Hu Jintao, who also serves as the head of the Central Military Commission, did not know about the test, or at the least did not know the specifics (The New York Times, January 19). Such a scenario presents troubling questions concerning civilian oversight of the PLA and the extent to which the PLA is its own powerbase.

While the test may not have been a coordinated effort to coerce the United States to negotiate a space weapons treaty, it is possible that the test was a response to U.S. government and military statements advocating the development of space weapons. For some time now, Chinese authors have identified the United States as intent on developing space weapons (Jiefangjun Bao, February 7, 2001). Chinese strategists may believe that the United States already possesses space weapons or will eventually develop them regardless of Chinese actions, and that they must possess space weapons to conduct their own counterspace missions or create a deterrent against the U.S. use of space weapons. Therefore, the test should be viewed in a more military rather than a diplomatic context.

Space Weapons’ Military Utility

A discussion of the military utility of space weapons for China must be prefaced with an explanation of how China views modern warfare. After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the PLA became increasingly focused on the role of information in warfare and concluded that information superiority and denying information to adversaries are critical to winning modern wars. Indeed, the 2006 defense white paper states that enhancing the performance of the armed forces with “informationization” is the major criterion for measuring the development of the PLA.

Space is recognized by Chinese authors as a main conduit for information collection and transmittal and Chinese “space cadets” have identified space as the premier dimension of war and one that must be controlled if victory on the ground is to be assured [4]. Military writers have also identified the use of space by the United States as a potential Achilles heel. While the U.S. military is heavily reliant on space technology for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions; communications; and positioning, navigation, and timing, the fragility of space-based assets makes them vulnerable to attack.

Chinese military writers have also concluded that the PLA cannot defeat the technologically superior and battle hardened U.S. military in a force-on-force battle. The PLA has thus been searching for asymmetric means of defeating the U.S. military. Part of this effort has included the search for “assassin’s mace” (sha shou jian) weapons. An assassin’s mace is a weapon that when used at a critical juncture against a strategic vulnerability, yields decisive results. Space weapons conform to this description. Chinese writings on information operations have identified eliminating adversary ISR capabilities at the beginning of a battle as critical to ensuring victory [5]. In fact, the authors of one important book on military operations state that information operations both necessitate and facilitate “gaining mastery by striking first” and conclude that “to cripple or destroy the enemy’s information system would drastically degrade the enemy’s combat capabilities by making it blind, deaf or paralyzed” [6].

By reducing the situational awareness of an enemy, the PLA can employ stratagems that deceive the enemy into implementing incorrect actions, which then set it up for eventual defeat. Consequently, the first strikes of a military conflict between the United States and China could occur in space.


China’s ASAT test raises unsettling questions about China’s commitment to arms control, the ramifications of its rise as a major power, its military posture and foreign policy toward the United States and Chinese civil-military relations. Its secretive nature and hesitancy to admit to the test raises questions regarding whether China was ever serious about banning space weapons and whether it was actually engaging in “lawfare”—a strategy aimed at ensnaring the United States in legal commitments to which China never had the intention of abiding. Moreover, its official statements regarding the test only seem to add confusion to China’s stance on space weaponization. A Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that China “opposes weaponization and an arms race in outer space. Our position has not changed” (The Washington Post, January 23). Such actions also raise suspicions about China’s adherence to other arms control measures, such as its adherence to a similarly principled moratorium on nuclear testing.

China’s test could also undermine its campaign to assuage concerns about its potential rise. Its space diplomacy has heretofore been exemplary and has managed to accentuate civil and commercial applications and international cooperation rather than national security issues. Moreover, world opinion has been overwhelming against U.S. policy toward space (China Brief, January 10). China has tried to reassure the international community that it “will not engage in any arms race or pose a threat to any other country,” but the ASAT test could send a signal that its outward diplomacy belies an inner aggressiveness, especially since the majority of countries oppose the weaponization of space [7]. China’s test could also trigger the United States into developing space weapons and lead to an arms race in space.

China’s delayed confirmation of the test also raises questions about the extent of President Hu’s power vis-à-vis the military and to what extent the military dictates policy. It is probable that Hu was aware of the ASAT program, even if not in detail. Chinese inaction also suggests, however, that Hu may yet need to consolidate his power within the PLA or has already given the PLA wide latitude and significant autonomy in conducting its own affairs.

Finally, the test defies explanation in terms of the bilateral relationship. U.S.-China relations are at a high point and cross-Strait relations remain relatively stable. Yet, the ASAT test is just one of several provocative actions taken by China recently. In August 2006, National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald M. Kerr confirmed that a U.S. satellite had been painted by a Chinese laser, and in October 2006 Pacific Command Commander Admiral William J. Fallon confirmed that a Chinese Song-class submarine had surfaced within five miles of the carrier USS Kitty Hawk (The Washington Post, January 19; BBC, November 16, 2006). All incidents seem to send the message that the PLA has adopted a more aggressive posture toward the United States.

While military issues are just one aspect of the overall relationship with China, its importance can have important spillover effects to the entire relationship. China’s ASAT test, coupled with other provocative actions, may play into the hands of those in the United States who believe security issues should play a stronger role in tempering U.S.-China relations—a consequence which China hopes to avoid. The test can be used to argue against greater positive-sum engagement with China and to counter claims that China is a more responsible stakeholder in the international arena. Unfortunately, it remains unclear whether the Chinese leadership even understands how poorly it has miscalculated.


1. Conference on Disarmament, “Final Record of the Nine Hundred and Eighty-Eighth Plenary Meeting,” June 30, 2005.

2. Statement on PAROS by H.E. Mr. Cheng Jingye, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China, at the Plenary of the Conference on Disarmament, June 8, 2006, accessed at on January 20, 2007.

3. Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China,” October 16, 1964, quoted in John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988, p. 241-243.

4. See, for example, Li Daguang, Space Warfare (Taikong zhan), Beijing: Military Science Press, 2001, p. 375-376.

5. “Future Basic Methods of Our Army’s Information Warfare” (shilun weilai wojun xinxizhan de jiben yangshi), in Military Studies Editorial Department (junshi xueshu bianjibu), Research On Our Army’s Information Warfare Issues (wojun xinxizhan wenti yanjiu), Beijing: NDU Press, 1999, p. 2.

6. Wang Houqing and Zhang Xingye et al., The Science of Campaigns (zhanyixue), Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2000, p. 95 and 178.

7. PRC Information Office of the State Council, “China’s National Defense in 2006,” December 2006.