China's Anti-Satellite Test: No News is Bad News

Frank Ching | 30 Jan 2020

After days of tight-lipped silence, the Chinese Government last week finally confirmed what the rest of the world already knew, courtesy of the United States: that China had conducted a test on an anti-satellite weapon despite two decades of asseverations that it is opposed to the militarisation of space and, specifically, opposed to the development of anti-satellite weapons.

It is interesting to note that, a full week after the test on January 12, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, still professed ignorance about the weapons test.

It is not surprising that the foreign ministry was not informed of the details of a top-secret weapons-testing program. After all, the Chinese government tends to follow vertical lines of authority, and one government department does not necessarily keep another department informed of its activities, especially on sensitive issues.

But it is surprising that Beijing was not prepared with a story to account for this test once it became public, since it must have known that the United States is capable of detecting and tracking the launch of the ballistic missile used to knock the orbiting satellite to smithereens.

A government spokesman who does not have instructions on how to handle a delicate issue may well be an indication of disarray within the government. It is something of a mystery, one that hopefully will be resolved at some point.

The Chinese authorities in the past had avoided the spotlight when it was unsure just what to say. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when China was being universally vilified, all efforts by the president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, to contact paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to find out what was going on failed. There were even rumors that he was dead.

But then, on June 9, he appeared in public, surrounded by other leaders in a show of unity. Deng spoke forcefully of the need to crack down on "counter-revolutionary" attempts to overthrow the Communist party. By then, of course, the struggle within the party was over and the hardliners had won decisively.

Of course, there is no suggestion this time around of a major power struggle within the Communist party. Still, it is surprising that it took the Chinese leaders such a long time to decide what line to present to the public and to foreign governments who wanted to know the significance of the weapons test. It remains a mystery which, hopefully, will be resolved one day.

Mr. Liu, the foreign ministry spokesman, confirmed the space test January 23 at a regular press conference when he emphasised that China "advocates peaceful utilisation" of outer space and opposes an arms race in space.

He went on to say that "this experiment is not targeted at any country, nor will it pose threat to any country."

If that is true, one wonders why China was developing an anti-satellite weapon in the first place. Surely, the purpose cannot be only to shoot down its own satellites.

When a reporter asked about the concern Taiwan had expressed, the spokesman immediately responded: "I don't want to link the test in outer space with the Taiwan question."

The problem, however, is that these two issues are inevitably linked in the minds of most observers, since China has made it clear that its top priority is to bring about the political unification of Taiwan and the mainland, by force it necessary. Why else, after all, would China be developing a sophisticated space weapon if not to use it to bring about such unification?

The spokesman asserted: "I think it shall not worry the people who stick to 'one China' principle and oppose Taiwan independence and the separation from the motherland." The corollary of that, of course, is that those who support independence should worry. And so would anyone who does not wish to see war break out in this region.

So far, Beijing has not gone beyond the press conference statements regarding the test. But it must say a lot more if it is to regain the credibility that it has lost by conducting such a test.

The world is entitled to know what China's intentions are, and how it can reconcile the development of a space weapon with its supposed support for the abolition of all space weapons. If a convincing explanation is not forthcoming soon, Beijing may find that it has to pay a high price here on earth for its success in space.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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