China’s Space Mission Comes Amid Push for Ban on Space Weapons
Thursday’s launch of a three-man crew from a base in northwest China begins what President Hu Jintao called a “glorious and sacred mission,” which is supposed to include China’s first spacewalk.
Coming shortly after Beijing’s hosting of the Olympic Games, the Shenzhou-7 mission – in the Pentagon’s words – aims at “underscoring space development as an important symbol of national pride.”
China in 2003 became only the third country in the world, after the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, to independently send a human into orbit. A second successful mission took place in Oct. 2005. Beijing China has the stated goal of establishing a space laboratory complex in 2010, and having a lunar landing and a manned space station by 2020.
While China’s space achievements have drawn praise in the international community, its future plans also have prompted security concerns, particularly in the wake of a troubling satellite shoot-down in January 2007.
With no prior warning, China launched a ground-based ballistic missile to destroy one of its own weather satellites in orbit, more than 500 miles above the earth. The Pentagon said testing of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons had put at risk the assets of all space-faring nations, creating “an unprecedented amount of debris.”
In a report to Congress last March, the Pentagon said ASAT capability was one component of a multi-dimensional Chinese program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries during a crisis or conflict.
It noted that China also cites its space programs as justification for steps to improve its “ability to track and identify satellites – a prerequisite for effective, precise counter-space operations.”
The People’s Liberation Army “is developing the ability to jam, blind, or otherwise disable satellites and their terrestrial support infrastructure,” the report added. China’s space advances have been achieved with significant help from Russia.
The two countries for several years have been promoting a treaty purportedly aimed at preventing weapons from reaching space, a proposal opposed by the United States, which voted against a resolution on the subject at the United Nations in late 2006.
Critics of the China-Russia proposal see a link to the two countries’ deep-rooted opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, which entail missiles being fired to intercept and destroy enemy missiles outside earth’s atmosphere. Russia and China are publicly skeptical of U.S. assertions that the aim of the shields is to defend the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia against future threats from such countries as Iran or North Korea.
Other problems with the proposed treaty include difficulties in defining space weapons. China’s ASAT weapons, for example, may not be covered since the direct-ascent missile was fired from earth. Verification would pose yet another hurdle.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on several occasions has unsuccessfully attempted to move legislation banning “space-based weapons,” including a bid in 2005 to include in a foreign relations authorization bill a requirement for the president to initiate negotiations for an international ban.
Heritage Foundation scholar Baker Spring said later that Kucinich’s proposal “could conceivably require the U.S. to withdraw all navigation, communications, and command and control satellites necessary to identify enemy targets and direct U.S. weapons against those targets.”
Now, at a time of tensions between Russia and the U.S. over a range of issues including deployment of a missile defense shield in Europe, the issue is back on the table.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week said Russia intends to introduce a draft resolution at the U.N. General Assembly session now underway, and called for European cooperation.
The Kommersant daily quoted him as saying the existence of weapons in space – like the planned missile defense system – was a destabilizing factor in international security, one that “undermines parity and strategic stability.”
A new special report by the Council on Foreign Relations says that some degree of offensive space capability is inevitable, and the U.S. should take the lead in establishing a more stable and secure space environment.
As the U.S., China and other countries increasingly benefit from information provided by military and intelligence satellites, it argues, “the temptation to attack these satellites provides troubling potential for instability and conflict in space that could dramatically affect U.S. military capabilities on earth.”
“As China becomes a credible space power with a demonstrated offensive counterspace capability, the question for U.S. policy is what kind of feasible and stable space regime best serves U.S. long-term security interests,” says report author Bruce MacDonald.
The U.S. needs to deploy defense programs and strategies to deter China or others from attacking U.S. assets in space, along with diplomatic initiatives aimed at increasing clarity and minimizing misunderstanding on space-related matters, and reducing chances of accidental conflict, he says.