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After China's Test: Time For a Limited Ban on Anti-Satellite Weapons

Geoffrey Forden

China 's Jan. 11 test of a sophisticated hit-to-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon should have shattered complacency about the dangers posed by these arms. Much press commentary has focused on the threat to U.S. military systems, but these are less vulnerable than is popularly perceived. The real danger lies less in the military realm than in the long-term risk to civilian communications, weather forecasting, and pure scientific research conducted by all space-faring nations.

The possibility of great harm to the major civilian economies and a lack of real military utility should bring all nations together to outlaw these weapons. To date, it has proved difficult to achieve international consensus on banning these systems and is likely to remain so. China , for one, is concerned about the U.S. missile defense system, and the Bush administration wants to keep open the option of fielding these weapons.[1] If these disagreements can be overcome, however, a technical agreement detailing limits on “closing speed” and maneuvering provides the appropriate basis for a verifiable and robust ban on the most dangerous of these arms.

The Chinese ASAT Test

Closing speed is the key to understanding the sophistication of China 's ASAT capabilities. This relative speed between the interceptor and the satellite determines the complexity of the ASAT weapon's onboard tracking and guidance systems and the control of its rocket engines. After all, one cannot simply “plug in the satellite's coordinates” because one risks making an error of at least several kilometers in locating where the satellite is at any given moment.[2]

China 's ASAT weapon hit its target, the obsolete Feng Yun-1C weather satellite, almost head on with a rapid closing speed of just more than 8 kilometers per second.[3] To accomplish this, it almost certainly used an onboard optical tracker. This is basically a video camera that would see the satellite as a bright star, albeit one that moved very fast relative to the other stars. If so, China has been developing this weapons system for quite some time with previous flight tests of the tracking system, perhaps mounted on experimental satellites.

China 's ASAT weapon, unlike those tested by the Soviets, for example, appears not to have used an exploding warhead. It relied instead on the interceptor's substantial kinetic energy; at the time of the collision, it packed as much energy as 10 times its weight in TNT. No wonder it created substantial debris, more than 1,000 pieces large enough to be tracked from Earth. Debris from this collision has been observed at altitudes as great as 3,600 kilometers, four times as high as the original target satellite. It is possible that some pieces actually escaped the pull of the Earth's gravitational field altogether.

Although we cannot determine the ASAT weapon's mass precisely, we do know from an analysis of the resulting debris pattern that it was less than 600 kilograms, possibly much less.[4] Therefore, at least three such interceptors could be placed on China's smallest space launch vehicle capable of lofting satellites into geostationary transfer orbits. At these orbits, they could attack more strategically important satellites, such as communications and early-warning satellites or, at somewhat lower orbits, GPS satellites.

Assessing the Threat

Even though this was a test of a very sophisticated weapon, it was still only a single successful test. China , with its history of deliberate weapons development, is unlikely to feel confident in this system until it has undergone a significant number of additional tests against similar targets. China would then almost certainly want to test many of the ASAT weapon's subsystems in geostationary transfer orbits so Beijing could have confidence in attacks against higher-orbit satellites. China might choose to do so using close flybys that would not create the debris or international uproar its last test did.

Contrary to some analysts' assertions,[5] China would then likely have an ASAT system capable of threatening all U.S. space assets, not just those in low-Earth orbit. China has already mastered the techniques of placing satellites in medium[6] and higher orbits: first placing the satellite and its booster's third stage into low-Earth orbit, then using the third stage to boost the satellite into a highly elliptical transfer orbit,[7] and finally using the satellite's onboard engine to place it in a higher-altitude circular orbit. An ASAT attack against a navigational satellite or higher communications satellites would almost certainly involve the first two steps.[8]

At higher altitudes, moreover, the final attack is easier because at these altitudes satellites need to move less quickly to stay in orbit because of the Earth's weakening gravitational field. Likewise, an ASAT weapon does not need to approach its target satellite with as great a closing speed (information graphic available in the print edition). Thus, an attack on a geostationary satellite would be considerably less stressing for an ASAT weapon's tracking, guidance, and control systems than the scenario already successfully tested by China 's ASAT system.

It might be possible to protect low-Earth-orbit satellites either by passive countermeasures (maneuvering out of the way of the interceptor) or active defenses (destroying the incoming interceptor before the collision). Active defenses are possible at such low altitudes because most of a suborbital interceptor's debris would fall to earth within minutes. Unfortunately, neither measure is effective at higher altitudes and could be counterproductive. If it missed the first time, an ASAT weapon placed in an elliptical transfer orbit could simply wait for its next pass. For a geostationary satellite, the interceptor would have another shot about 24 hours later. Furthermore, to escape, the target satellite would undoubtedly have had to accelerate at several times that of gravity, likely causing booms or large, high-gain antennas to shear off. If on the other hand, the defender was foolish enough to try to destroy the interceptor, it would simply create a shotgun blast of debris traveling in essentially the same trajectory as the interceptor; eventually this widening swarm would destroy the target. The advantage is definitely on the side of the attacker.

On the other hand, an attacker would have to destroy a considerable number of satellites in order to have an immediate effect on military operations. There are on average about 10 GPS satellites visible at any given time and point on the Earth's surface even though a high positional accuracy requires only six. An attacker would have to destroy at least six satellites to affect precision-guided munitions even momentarily because other GPS satellites would soon appear as their orbits took them into view. A country would need to disable nearly one-half of the United States' 24 NAVSTAR/GPS satellites currently in orbit to eliminate the ability to employ precision-guided munitions for more than a few hours each day.[9] Likewise, the United States has a number of alternatives for communications satellites in the short term. Other space assets, such as weather and mapping satellites, although important in the long term, are not as time critical.

Missile Defense and ASAT Systems

Any attempt to ban ASAT weapons development will have to figure out how to square such an agreement with the existence of U.S. ballistic missile defenses. Although the effectiveness of these defenses against missiles has been questioned, there is no doubt that they could hit a satellite in low-Earth orbit. Their tracking, guidance, and control systems have been developed and successfully tested against incoming warheads in engagements that have closing speeds in excess of 11 kilometers per second. Such closing speeds are much higher than those it would encounter against even the lowest satellite and certainly higher than those the Chinese overcame in their January test.

Missile defenses also pose an obstacle to making diplomatic progress on ASAT weapons systems. The United States believes these defenses are critical to protecting itself from attacks by rogue states, but China fears they could also be used to deter it in any conflict with the United States, such as over Taiwan.[10] In recent years, China, at first alone but later with Russia, has made several proposals to the United Nation's Conference on Disarmament on possible elements for a future treaty banning the weaponization of space. At times, the proposals have taken in all U.S. missile defenses, not merely U.S. consideration of deploying space-based interceptors.

Beijing 's and Moscow 's June 2001 proposal, for example, required signatories not to “test, deploy or use in outer space any weapons, weapon systems, or their components.”[11] As part of the proposed treaty, a list of definitions was offered that included defining outer space as starting at an altitude of 100 kilometers and a weapon as any device or facility that could “strike, destroy or disrupt directly the normal functions of a target.” These definitions are hardly controversial, but they would ban the United States from even testing its current defense shield, which is supposed to strike and destroy an incoming warhead at altitudes far higher than 100 kilometers.

In what could very well have been a response to these difficulties, China , in collaboration with Russia , proposed a new draft in June 2002.[12] This draft obligated signatory countries to “[n]ot place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons.” Because the U.S. system is tested and deployed on suborbital boosters, as is China 's ASAT system, it would be allowed under this first part of the treaty. The draft treaty then goes on to ban “the threat or use of force against outer space objects.” Because the treaty does not define either “outer space” or “object,” there is a certain amount of ambiguity about whether it allows the U.S. missile defense system. It is difficult to imagine an interpretation of these obligations that would allow the Chinese ASAT system.

Proposed Solutions

Codes of Conduct: Creating an International Taboo

Many feel that these definitional problems are impossible to overcome if international agreement is to be reached.[13] In answer to this, the Henry L. Stimson Center , in collaboration with a number of other nongovernmental organizations, has proposed a Code of Conduct for Space-Faring Nations. This code is still evolving,[14] but its key feature is a pledge to avoid creating persistent space debris by following the guidelines of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC).[15] Such a pledge would go a long way in protecting the world's economic interests in outer space by creating an international taboo against creating dangerous space junk. It would be an effective first step in banning the weaponization of space if it can strengthen the political commitments to the IADC's guidelines, guidelines with which the major space-faring nations' technical experts have already agreed.

Another important aspect of the proposed code is the call for nations of the world to share space surveillance data. Through a series of radars, ground-based optical telescopes, and even a camera onboard a satellite, the United States observes and tracks almost all the objects in space with diameters greater than 10 centimeters. The parameters necessary to calculate the orbits for most of these are provided on a website open to the public.[16] Other countries also maintain such observations but do not share them. It would be an important confidence-building measure for all countries to share this information. It would even improve satellite tracking because satellites are occasionally “lost” for days or months at a time because of a lack of observations at a crucial moment.[17] The situational awareness of objects in space that tracking provides is important for two reasons: in avoiding collisions between satellites, particularly for geostationary satellites and for the International Space Station, and preventing false alarms by the North American Aerospace Defense Command early-warning radars misidentifying a satellite for an incoming warhead.[18]

The Stimson Center 's code has been designed to avoid bans on activities that would simulate attacks on satellites because of the definitional problems discussed above. As a result, countries unfortunately could still test complete ASAT systems under the proposed code by using close flybys.

A Treaty Banning ASAT Testing

Other analysts have attempted to make progress with proposals banning the testing, development, and deployment of ASAT systems above some threshold altitude.[19] Such methods certainly avoid the missile defense problems that have stymied previous treaty attempts, but they also leave open the development of these weapons at lower altitudes, even if combined with a code of conduct for lower altitudes. It would, unfortunately, be a relatively minor step to move an ASAT weapon that had been developed for lower altitudes and mount it on a more powerful rocket, especially for countries such as China or India that have already orbited geostationary satellites.

A better approach might be simply to ban one spacecraft from approaching another orbiting spacecraft[20] at excessive speeds. A technical annex to the treaty, one that could be adjusted by a standing committee of experts, might define these as closing speeds greater than 100 meters per second if they are within 100 kilometers of each other. These speeds and distances are great enough not to interfere with much of the normal operating procedures in space and yet would still obstruct the development of the tracking, guidance, and control of any ASAT weapon. At the same time, they do not prevent the testing and deployment of ground-based missile defenses because the target is not in orbit.

Space is far from empty, however. For instance, within a single 100-minute orbit, an equatorial satellite “violated” the proposed treaty limits several times by passing closer than 100 kilometers (at closing speeds of more than 100 meters per second) to 18 cataloged space objects, including two functioning satellites. Of the 16 pieces of debris, six were from the satellite destroyed in China 's ASAT weapons test, which, for this orbit, increased by 50 percent the risk of collision with a large piece of debris.

To prevent such false violations, the treaty should be limited to cases where spacecraft were maneuvering within this region, which is the essence of the tracking-guidance-control system. Thus, although it would still be possible to develop individual components of an ASAT system such as the optical tracker with in-orbit tests under this proposed treaty, it would not be possible to gain enough confidence in the complete system to deploy a weapon.

Space-based satellite surveillance, which has already been implemented on a single satellite, could be used to detect spacecraft maneuvering in close proximity to other satellites by observing the exhaust plumes from the interceptor's jets.[21] The satellite tracking system at present, however, could not verify this ban because it does not have the space-based surveillance assets necessary for such continuous coverage. The United States would need to implement a complete constellation of satellites dedicated to tracking other satellites, as proposed by the Congressional Budget Office in 2000.[22]

What Is Not Covered by the Proposed Treaty

The proposed treaty discussed here is aimed at stopping the testing and deployment of some of the most dangerous ASAT systems currently on the horizon: high-speed kinetic-kill ASAT weapons. It does not stop the development of other types of ASAT weapons, such as the space mines with which the Soviets experimented in the 1980s. These weapons slowly approach their targets and then detonate. It is very difficult to ban the development of such slow-speed approaches because they have a number of legitimate peaceful uses. For instance, the International Space Station is regularly resupplied by unmanned Soyuz spacecraft.

Micro- or even smaller satellites, which would be nearly impossible to track, are also being developed to service the International Space Station.[23] These too are not covered by the proposal when used as space mines. Microsatellite know-how, however, possibly will be turned into high-speed kinetic-kill ASAT weaponry sometime in the future and would be covered by the treaty; it would just be difficult to detect. This is an example of why space-tracking technology must continue to be improved for verification purposes as well as for keeping our space situational awareness up to date.

This discussion has focused on the kinetic-kill type of ASAT weapon that China tested in January, but significant damage to low-flying satellites can be caused by blinding lasers, which China also has allegedly used.[24] This type of weapons system should also be banned, but specialized methods of verification would need to be developed.

The time is right for a treaty banning the testing of the most dangerous ASAT systems. The world has expressed grave concern at the space debris China 's last test created that put at increased risk both manned spaceflight and commercial space assets.[25] If the United States acts now while it is still technologically dominant in space, it could prevent other countries from gaining the experience and confidence needed to field such weapons. China , for its part, has shown the world that ASAT weapons are not a Western monopoly, and if it believes in its rhetoric of the past decade, it could negotiate an end to an entire class of weapons.

Geoffrey Forden is a research associate with the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as chief of the multidisciplinary analysis section of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).


1. Michael Krepon, “Weapons in the Heavens: A Radical and Reckless Option,” Arms Control Today , November 2004, pp. 11-18.

2. The parameters determined by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) tracking of satellites give an uncertainty about where the satellite is at any given moment, of about 10 kilometers along the orbit and approximately 2 kilometers transverse to that.

3. This is a combination of the satellite's orbital speed of 7.4 kilometers per second and the interceptor's speed of 1.8 kilometers per second at the time of the interception.

4. For a technical analysis and explanation of how these estimates were made, see Geoffrey Forden, “An Analysis of the Chinese ASAT Test,” Jane's Online, April 2007.

5. See Michael O'Hanlon, “A Space Weapons Race Is Not the Answer for America ,” The Financial Times, January 22, 2007.

6. A medium-Earth orbit is defined as any orbit greater than 2,000 kilometers in altitude and less than geostationary Earth orbits at 35,786 kilometers in altitude.

7. The lowest point in a transfer orbit is at the original low-Earth orbit's altitude while its highest point is usually just greater than the desired end orbit.

8. The U.S. national missile defense booster and interceptor, if used as an ASAT weapon, could directly attack satellites as high as 18,000 kilometers. Although this altitude is well above 2,000 kilometers, it is lower than the altitude of NAVSTAR/GPS navigational satellites.

9. Geoffrey Forden, “Sensitivity of GPS Coverage to Loss of One or More Satellites,” Technical Appendix D, in Ensuring America's Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space (October 2004).

10. See Hui Zhang, “Action/Reaction: U.S. Weaponization and China ,” Arms Control Today , December 2005, pp. 6-11.

11. Hu Xiaodi, “Possible Elements of the Future International Legal Instrument on the Prevention of the Weaponization of Outer Space,” CD/1645, June 6, 2001.

12. Hu Xiaodi and Leonid Skotnikov, “Possible Elements for a Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects,” CD/1679, June 28, 2002.

13. Michael Krepon, e-mail to author, February 10, 2007.

14. Previous versions of the Stimson Center 's code also asked states to forgo “simulating an attack on a satellite.” Stimson Center , “Model Code of Conduct for the Prevention of Incidents and Dangerous Military Practices in Outer Space,” May 19, 2004.

15. The Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee is composed of representatives of national space agencies including NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia's space agency, and China's space agency.

16. Space-Track, located at http://www.space-track.org. Space-Track does not list the parameters for classified U.S. satellites. Most, if not all, of these are tracked by amateurs in the backyards using very inexpensive equipment. See Visual Satellite Observer's Home Page, located at http://www.satobs.org/satintro.html.

17. Grant H. Stokes et al., “The Space-Based Visible Program,” Lincoln Laboratory Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1998), pp. 205-229.

18. A false alarm of a nuclear attack, fortunately caught before it triggered a “response,” was caused by a satellite appearing to a radar in Moorestown , New Jersey , to rise from Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. See Scott Sagan, Limits of Safety (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 130-131.

19. For some previous proposals for high-altitude bans, see Donald Hofner and Bhupendra Jasani, “An Arms Control Proposal Limiting High-Altitude ASAT Weapons,” in Strategic Defenses and the Future of the Arms Race: A Pugwash Symposium, eds. John Holdren and Joseph Rotblat (London: MacMillian Press, 1987), pp. 226-239; Ashton B. Carter, “Satellite and Anti-Satellite: The Limits of the Possible,” International Security, Spring 1986, pp. 46-98.

20. The operative phase here is “orbiting spacecraft.” “Orbiting” would mean making more than one circuit of the Earth, and “spacecraft” is used to avoid the thousands of times per day of accidental close encounters with space debris. A standing panel of experts would have to be created to discuss such definitions in the light of experience.

21. The existing space-based tracking asset has already demonstrated a rudimentary capability to do this. See Stokes et. al., “Space-Based Visible Program,” p. 218.

22. Geoffrey Forden, “Option 3-08: Establish a Space-Based Capability to Search for and Track Adversaries' Spacecraft,” in Budget Options for National Defense ( Washington , DC : Congressional Budget Office, March 2000), pp. 37-39. The United States has undertaken the development of such a constellation in the form of the Space Based Space Surveillance Pathfinder single satellite project scheduled for launch in 2007. See Boeing Integrated Space Systems, located at http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/space/satellite/sbss.html.

23. See NASA Exploration Systems, located at http://exploration.nasa.gov/programs/station/STP-H2-MEPSI.html.

24. “Top Commander: Chinese Interference With U.S. Satellites Uncertain,” Inside Missile Defense, October 22, 2006.

25. See “European Union Expresses Concern Over Chinese ASAT Test,” Defense Daily, January 24, 2007.

China 's Jan. 11 test of a sophisticated hit-to-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon should have shattered complacency about the dangers posed by these arms. Much press commentary has focused on the threat to U.S. military systems, but these are less vulnerable than is popularly perceived. The real danger lies less in the military realm than in the long-term risk to civilian communications, weather forecasting, and pure scientific research conducted by all space-faring nations. (Continue)

Chinese Proud, Defensive About ASAT Test

Scarlet Kim

After shooting down one of its weather satellites Jan. 11, the Chinese government maintained a baffling silence until Jan. 23 when it confirmed foreign reports of the event. Since then, government leaders in Beijing have said little, but the same cannot be said for some of China’s 1.3 billion people, who are expressing patriotic pride and defending their military’s technological achievement.

News of the anti-satellite (ASAT) test trickled into the Chinese mainland hours after the first official U.S. reports appeared Jan. 18. Shortly thereafter, commentary emerged on major Chinese internet forums, a proxy barometer of public opinion. Although some Chinese initially voiced doubts about the authenticity of the news, the reaction was generally positive. A typical opinion appearing on the military forum bbs.military.china.com stated, “[The test] is of great political significance to our country…and a milestone in our country’s scientific advancement. Our army can no longer be considered backwards.”

In a Jan. 26 interview with Arms Control Today, Professor Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at the Beijing-based People’s University, stated that “100% of internet public opinion…enthusiastically applauds this development.” He cautioned, however, that internet views might not be an entirely accurate reflection of Chinese sentiment, noting that those who harbor reservations about the test may fear expressing their opposition openly.

Shi also noted that most Chinese may not be fully aware of the event, owing to sparse Chinese media coverage of the satellite destruction. Still, he concluded, “for those who do know, I suppose that the overwhelming majority is in favor of this development of space military capabilities.”

While Western media have been busy scrutinizing China’s test and growing ASAT capabilities, China’s state-run media has spotlighted the space capabilities and plans of other countries, particularly the United States. As a result, many Chinese may not realize the seeming contradiction between China’s official position in support of limits on space weapons and its recent ASAT test. In the last few weeks, the Chinese government has continued to insist that it wants to prevent the “weaponization” of space.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published a Jan. 28 article, “United States Issues New Space Policy: An Inventory of American Anti-Satellite Warfare Capabilities.” Relying primarily on U.S. nongovernmental analysis, the article outlines U.S. missile defense capabilities and concludes that Washington is determined to deploy space-based weapons. Other Chinese news outlets have run variations of this piece.

At the same time, some Chinese are concerned that the test could bolster some claims in Washington and elsewhere that China is a growing military competitor. A student at the People’s University wrote in an online academic forum that the test will only “add fuel to the ‘China Threat’ argument,” supporting those “Western conservative politicians who want to restrain China even if she is rising peacefully.”

The Chinese military has dismissed such claims. In a Feb. 2 article in the Global Times, a weekly Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper, Major General Zhang Zhaozhong noted that “if a strong military indicates a large threat,” then by that logic “ China is not the country that poses the biggest threat to the world.”

After shooting down one of its weather satellites Jan. 11, the Chinese government maintained a baffling silence until Jan. 23 when it confirmed foreign reports of the event...

Chinese Satellite Destruction Stirs Debate

Wade Boese

In January, China for the first time used a weapon to destroy one of its satellites. Beijing says its feat was not hostile, but it polluted space with a huge amount of potentially harmful debris and sparked debate over China’s professed desire to prevent a space arms race.

China Jan. 11 demolished an aging weather satellite, the Feng Yun-1C, orbiting Earth at an altitude of approximately 850 kilometers. The satellite disintegrated when struck by a projectile carried into space by a ballistic missile launched from the Xichang space launch facility in southwestern China.

The United States and the Soviet Union pursued anti-satellite weapons programs throughout much of the Cold War. Before China’s test, Washington in 1985 had carried out the only previous test in which a satellite was destroyed. In that experiment, an F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft fired a missile armed with a kill vehicle that collided with the U.S. Solwind satellite.

Beijing provided no advance notice of its test and stayed silent for days afterward. The U.S. government confirmed the incident Jan. 18.

China publicly acknowledged the test Jan. 23. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao said that day that the test was “not targeted at any country.” He reiterated China’s long-standing position that it opposes the “weaponization” of space, but Liu did not discuss the reasons for the test, an approach the Chinese government has maintained.

Broad speculation has filled the void. Some have interpreted the experiment as a Chinese show of strength and a warning to Washington that its space assets would be vulnerable to attack if the United States and China ever went to war. Others have seen the test as Beijing’s attempt to stimulate the United States to drop its long-standing opposition to Chinese- and Russian-advocated negotiations on prevention of an arms race in outer space.

If the latter was the intent, China appears to have miscalculated, at least in the short term. U.S. Ambassador Christina Rocca told delegates to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva Feb. 13, “Despite the [anti-satellite] test, we continue to believe that there is no arms race in space, and therefore no problem for arms control to solve.”

Rocca’s statement meshes with the Bush administration’s stance in its national space policy released last October, ruling out future arms control measures for space. In general, the policy emphasized that “freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.” (See ACT, November 2006. )

Rocca assured CD members that the United States is “not out to claim space for its own or to weaponize it.” But she also stressed Washington would defend its space assets from threats, noting that the Chinese test “reminds us that a relatively small number of countries are exploring and acquiring capabilities to counter, attack, and defeat vital space systems.”

Pointing out that China launched its satellite-smashing weapon from earth, Rocca questioned whether a space weapons treaty would include terrestrial-based anti-satellite arms. She suggested such definitional issues and potential verification difficulties posed immense problems and pitfalls for any negotiations. Past Chinese and Russian proposals have included obligations against “the threat or use of force against outer space objects.”

Other CD members pressed China for an explanation of its test, but some also urged the United States to revise its anti-space negotiations stand. German Ambassador Bernhard Brasack, speaking Feb. 13 for the 27-member European Union, declared it “irresponsible to block the further discussion on [the space issue] for fear of too ambitious goals.” The CD operates by consensus, and the United States for years has staunchly objected to space talks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Feb. 10 that Moscow would soon be submitting to the conference a draft treaty banning space weapons. The Kremlin is keen on stopping possible deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems in space, an option the Pentagon wants to start testing around 2012.

Meanwhile, Canada’s ambassador to the CD, Paul Meyer, promoted a multilateral moratorium on anti-satellite tests. He argued Feb. 13 that it was an urgent step, given increasing space debris, which refers to any man-made item in orbit that no longer has a use.

Meyer did not explicitly say so, but China’s test created a lot of space garbage. Indeed, Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris, told Arms Control Today Feb. 22 that the obliteration of the Feng Yun-1C marked “the worst satellite breakup” ever in terms of creating large debris and long-term effects on the “near-Earth environment.”

The United States tracks large debris, any item greater than 10 centimeters, because it could collide with and damage or destroy satellites or manned spacecraft. Because items in space are traveling so fast, even debris as small as one centimeter could prove harmful.

Johnson said the United States is currently tracking approximately 1,000 large debris items out of the more than 35,000 pieces of debris one centimeter or larger that NASA estimates the Chinese test produced. Before the test, roughly 10,000 large debris units existed in space.

Although some of the new debris will soon re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, satellites and spacecraft will have to navigate around some chunks for years, decades, and perhaps a century or more. If the new test debris damages any country’s space assets, China would be liable under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which aims to preserve space for peaceful purposes and protect national and international space assets. Beijing acceded to the treaty in 1983.

Given the high cost of satellites and their significant commercial and military utility, many countries are eager to prevent additional space debris. In February, a subcommittee of the 67-member UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which includes China, Russia, and the United States, adopted nonbinding space-debris mitigation guidelines. The full committee is expected to adopt the guidelines later this year.

The space debris problem clearly ranked as an immediate worry for U.S. officials after the Chinese test, but they also questioned the Chinese political and military motivations behind the test. Senior administration officials labeled the test variously as “very troubling,” “very worrisome,” “destabilizing,” and “quite unpleasant.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 6 that the test showed a capability but does not reveal how it fits within China’s “strategic outlook” or potential-use calculations. U.S. officials say they are seeking such clarifications from Beijing.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued Jan. 29 that Beijing’s intentions are self-evident and that United States should pursue space weapons capabilities, including anti-satellite systems. “We need to have the capability to eliminate a hostile satellite when necessary,” Kyl said.

A senior Air Force official told reporters Feb. 5 that the United States is not interested in such a destructive capability. “We don’t want to do that,” said the official, who also added that the United States is “not real eager to cause a lot of debris in space.”

One idea the official proposed exploring was adding sensors to each satellite to enable it to “see if somebody is coming up close” or to know if it has been “hit by a laser.” Both China and the United States allegedly have been exploring microsatellites that could maneuver close to and disable another satellite, as well as lasers to blind or impair satellites.


The USSR’s Past Anti-Satellite Testing

Wade Boese

The Soviet Union pursued anti-satellite (ASAT) programs for decades but apparently never smashed a satellite into bits as China did recently and the United States did in 1985. Still, Washington assessed Moscow’s capabilities as a viable threat to U.S. satellites.

Before instituting a moratorium on ASAT test launches in August 1983, the Kremlin conducted at least 20 ASAT tests beginning in 1968. The Soviet tests involved the use of interceptor vehicles with explosives designed to detonate near their intended target.

None of the Soviet tests resulted in a target’s complete destruction. Indeed, Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief expert on orbital debris, told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that “only one Soviet ASAT target ever released debris as a result of an ASAT engagement.” He reported that four pieces of debris were detected from a November 1968 test.

Nevertheless, Johnson noted that even though targets were not obliterated, the tests were not necessarily failures. “In [the November 1968 test] and other successful engagements, the target satellite might well have been ‘destroyed’ from an operational viewpoint,” he stated.

The Pentagon assessed the Soviet Union as first attaining an operational ASAT capability in 1971. The now-disbanded congressional Office of Technology Assessment reported in an extensive September 1985 report on ASAT systems that “Soviet ASAT capabilities threaten U.S. military capabilities to some extent now and potentially to a much greater extent in the future.”

Moscow continued to investigate ASAT systems, allegedly including lasers, after its 1983 test moratorium, but it is uncertain how extensive and productive those efforts were and what Russia’s exact ASAT capabilities are today.

Chinese Anti-Satellite Test Demands Explanation, Outer Space Talks



Note for Reporters by Daryl G. Kimball

Immediate Release: January 26, 2007
Press Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107 (Office)

Since the beginning of the space age, countries have contemplated how they might protect their military and civilian space assets from attack by others. China’s destruction of one of its satellites using a ground-launched ballistic missile January 11 reaffirms the fundamental reality that space assets are physically vulnerable to attack, as U.S. and Soviet anti-satellite testing first demonstrated decades ago.

The January 11 event also raises many questions that Beijing should answer. Most importantly, why did China shoot down its own satellite and what did China hope to gain from this provocative act? Was China signalling that U.S. satellites would not be safe in a potential conflict with China? Was China hoping to push the United States toward negotiations on controlling space and anti-satellite weapons? Or both?

It is essential that Beijing clarify its intentions in order to help avert an unnecessary and destabilizing space weapons competition. It is also essential that the United States and other countries respond in a manner that reduces, rather than stokes, space weapons concerns.

All countries share a strong and enduring interest in preventing space from becoming a future battlefield and would benefit from limitations on the development and deployment of weapons that could be used to impair or destroy valuable space-based assets. Consequently, the United States, China, Russia, and other spacefaring nations should begin negotiations to prohibit space-based weapons and anti-satellite arms. James Clay Moltz outlined what such an agreement could entail in a 2002 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_04/moltzapril02.asp.
The logical forum for such talks is the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD). Unfortunately, the conference, which operates by consensus, has been deadlocked over competing negotiating priorities since 1996. Driven in part by its concerns about the United States’ rudimentary but evolving missile defense programs, China has been a leading advocate of CD talks on outer space. For its part, the United States has been staunchly opposed to the proposal, arguing that there is no need for such an agreement.

A trio of articles by notable arms control experts in the December 2007 Arms Control Today, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_12/, provide several recommendations for reviving the conference, including talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and on celestial bodies, but contains no provisions against developing anti-satellite weapons or deploying kinetic or laser weapons in orbit. If countries pursue and attain such capabilities, the consequences would be serious and devastating, as Michael Krepon argued in a November 2004 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_11/Krepon.asp.   

U.S. policymakers should seize on the Chinese anti-satellite test as an opportunity to constructively address mutual concerns and plug the current loopholes in the existing space security framework.

If the United States forsakes negotiations, continues with plans to test space-based missile defense systems, and seeks to ensure its own “freedom of action” in space as outlined in a recently unveiled space policy (see http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_11/ACSpace.asp), Washington will only further spur China to pursue anti-satellite weapons. Harvard scholar Hui Zhang warned of the negative implications of such an action-reaction cycle in this December 2005 Arms Control Today article, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2005_12/Dec-cvr.asp.

For more information on space and related weapons issues, see the ACA space resource page at http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/space/. Additional information on the CD and its ongoing deadlock is available at a separate ACA resource page at http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/cd/.  

# # #

The Arms Control Association (ACA) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting effective arms control policies. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.

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China Updates Nuclear Export Regulations

Paul Kerr

For the first time in almost 10 years, China has updated its export controls on nuclear technology. China’s State Council published the changes Dec. 1, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to Xinhua, the regulations, originally issued in 1997, are intended to give the government “more control over the end use” of exported nuclear technology. The revised regulations also provide more explicit guidance for importers and exporters of Chinese nuclear technology.

For example, the regulations give what appears to be new power to China’s customs authorities, which may now request that Chinese exporters obtain proper documentation of their shipments.

The regulations also describe more specific penalties for export control violations. The previous regulations said only that violators would be punished according to the relevant laws.

Furthermore, recipients of Chinese uranium-enrichment technology are now prohibited from using it to produce uranium containing more than 20 percent uranium-235.

Uranium enrichment, which increases the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235, can be used to produce both nuclear reactor fuel and fissile material for nuclear weapons. Uranium used as fuel in nuclear power reactors is typically enriched to less than 5 percent uranium-235; enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons typically is about 90 percent uranium-235.

The revised regulations also place new emphasis on preventing nuclear attacks by terrorists, adding, for example, “guarding against nuclear terrorist acts” as a rationale for controlling nuclear technology. Moreover, the regulations contain a new provision that allows Beijing to “suspend” nuclear exports to a recipient “if there is the danger of…nuclear terrorism.”

These changes continue a positive trend. In 1998, Beijing issued regulations governing the export of dual-use nuclear items. In 2004, China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a voluntary group of states that have agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and technology. (See ACT, June 2004.)

The regulations do not appear to affect China’s 2004 agreement, completed before its accession to the NSG, to supply Pakistan with a nuclear reactor. Although governments are not obliged to follow NSG standards for any contracts completed before joining the group, the deal has been controversial because it is inconsistent with NSG guidelines.

Beijing also has been strengthening other types of export controls. For example, in 2002 it adopted regulations governing the export of missiles and related components, as well as chemical and biological materials and related equipment. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

U.S. statements acknowledge that Beijing has improved its efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation but also claim that Chinese entities continue to aid certain countries’ nuclear programs.

For example, Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in September 2006 that China’s nuclear export control system “appears designed to ensure adequate review for those [nuclear materials and technology] exports that come to the attention” of the relevant authorities. But Washington is concerned about “whether these authorities choose to properly exercise their authority,” she added.

Similarly, a CIA report covering 2004 stated that “ China’s record is strongest with respect to nuclear nonproliferation, as Beijing has largely curtailed government-sanctioned assistance to most countries.”

However, an August 2005 Department of State report indicates that Beijing may be aiding two unnamed countries’ nuclear weapons programs. U.S. intelligence officials have testified as recently as 2004 that Chinese entities have provided such assistance to Iran and Pakistan.

China's Growing Missile Force


American Enterprise Institute Panel Featuring ACA Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball, July 11, 2006.
American Enterprise Institute Panel Featuring ACA Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

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Australia, China Conclude Nuclear Deal

Paul Kerr

Australia and China April 3 concluded two agreements to increase nuclear cooperation. Although the agreements must still be ratified by each country before entering into force, they appear to pave the way for Canberra to help supply Beijing’s expanding nuclear power industry.

In doing so, Australia brushed aside domestic concerns that the agreement could indirectly augment China’s nuclear arsenal. Canberra also denied that it was planning to change policy and allow similar uranium sales to India.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Chinese Foreign Minster Li Zhaoxing signed the agreements, including relevant safeguards, governing the transfer of nuclear material from Australia to China, as well as cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The agreements will enter into force 30 days after each side has fulfilled all relevant “domestic requirements.” They are to remain in force for an initial period of 30 years.

Beijing mines its own uranium but is trying to secure access to additional supplies as it seeks to increase its nuclear power-generating capacity to cope with increases in energy demand. Australia is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, according to a 2004 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It is not yet clear when the transfer would begin. Australia’s resource minister, Ian MacFarlane, said that Canberra is still “some distance” from exporting uranium to China, Xinhua Financial Network News reported April 3.

The agreements must enter into force before the uranium can be transferred, although contracts can be concluded before then. Downer stated April 3 that the agreements must still be reviewed by the Australian parliament but did not specify a date for the review. An Australian diplomat told Arms Control Today April 24 that “[t]he review process takes several months. At this stage, we do not have an estimate for when it will be completed.”

No specific nuclear cooperation agreements have yet been concluded. But such cooperation is “likely to include” research at a new reactor belonging to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, according to a fact sheet from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Canberra has declared repeatedly that the agreements will not help China augment its nuclear weapons arsenal. Downer stated April 3 that the agreements “establish strict safeguards arrangements and conditions” to ensure that Australian uranium, as well as “any collaborative programs in applications of nuclear technology…[are] used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

According to the nuclear material supply agreement, China is not to use Australian nuclear material for “direct military applications,” such as fissile material for nuclear weapons or fuel for nuclear reactors used for powering naval ships or submarines.

China acceded to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 as a nuclear- weapon state. Australia will supply nuclear material only to Chinese nuclear power facilities under IAEA safeguards, which allow the agency to monitor those facilities to ensure they are not used for military purposes. Beijing’s military facilities are not under such safeguards, according to Australia’s foreign affairs department. Australia and China must still agree on a list of facilities that will receive uranium.

In the event that the IAEA stops administering its safeguards, the two countries can “arrange for the application of safeguards satisfactory to both parties.”

The nuclear material supply agreement also places other restrictions on China. For example, Beijing is required to obtain Canberra’s permission before reprocessing spent reactor fuel, producing uranium with a uranium-235 isotope concentration of 20 percent or more, or transferring nuclear material to countries that do not have a nuclear transfer agreement with Australia.

China currently enriches uranium for its nuclear reactors as well as for some of its nuclear weapons. Uranium used in weapons typically contains about 90 percent uranium-235.

Reprocessing spent reactor fuel can produce plutonium for use as fissile material or as fuel in certain specialized nuclear reactors. China does not currently use plutonium for reactor fuel, but it does use plutonium in its nuclear arsenal.

According to Australia’s foreign affairs department, Canberra can suspend or terminate the nuclear material transfer agreement if Beijing does not abide by either the agreement’s terms or by China’s IAEA safeguards arrangements.

Moreover, Australian officials denied that the deal would free up indigenous Chinese uranium and thereby help Beijing increase its arsenal. The officials noted that China is widely believed to have ceased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. However, unlike the other four nuclear-weapon states under the NPT— France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States— China has yet publicly to announce a moratorium on fissile material production.

Asked whether Australia plans to supply uranium to India, Downer said in an April 4 interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that the two countries could “certainly not” conclude such an agreement “under present circumstances.” Australian law prohibits Canberra from exporting uranium to countries that have not signed the NPT.

Washington has recently concluded an agreement with New Delhi that would allow India to obtain U.S.-supplied fuel for its nuclear reactors. Congress must still approve the Bush administration’s proposed changes to U.S. law, which currently prohibits such transfers (See "Congress Ponders Conditions for U.S.-Indian Deal").


Action/Reaction: U.S. Space Weaponization and China

Hui Zhang

Chinese officials have expressed a growing concern that U.S. space and missile defense plans will stimulate a costly and destabilizing arms race. In particular, the prevailing view in Beijing is that the United States seeks to neutralize China’s strategic nuclear deterrent, freeing itself to intervene in China’s affairs and undermining Beijing’s efforts to prod Taiwan to reunify. If U.S. plans are left unchecked, therefore, Beijing may feel compelled to respond by introducing its own space weapons.

Beijing, however, would prefer to avoid this outcome. Chinese officials argue that weaponizing space is in no state’s interest, while continued peaceful exploitation redounds to the benefit of all states. Rather than battling over space, China wants countries to craft an international ban on space weaponization.

U.S. Moves Toward Space Weaponization

China ’s concerns are prompted by evidence that U.S. moves toward space weaponization are gaining momentum. In January 2001, a congressionally mandated space commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, who is now secretary of defense, recommended that “the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.”[1]

Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 has given the United States a free hand to move forward with missile defenses, and space-based missile defenses are envisioned as part of the U.S. mix. In the clearest official sign yet of support for space weaponization, last year the U.S. Air Force publicized its vision of how “counterspace operations” could help achieve and maintain “space superiority,” the “freedom to attack as well as the freedom from attack” in space.[2]

Already the United States is pursuing a number of military systems[3] that could be used to attack targets in space from Earth or targets on Earth from space. To China, current U.S. deployment of a Ground-Based Midcourse Missile Defense system represents an intentional first step toward space weaponization.[4] China experts argue that the interceptors of the system based in Alaska and California could be used to attack satellites.[5]

After all, such systems could be easily adapted to target satellites, which are more fragile and more predictable than ballistic missile warheads. If the United States is determined to ensure “space dominance,” it would first want to use such weapons to negate an adversary’s satellites.

Beijing is even more concerned about U.S. plans for a robust, layered missile defense system. Such a system would provide the capability to engage ballistic missiles in all phases of flight: soon after they are launched, at the height of their trajectory, and as they descend. These are known as the boost, midcourse, and terminal phases, respectively. In particular, China is concerned about interceptors and other defenses that the United States would like to position in space.

The Pentagon announced in December 2002 that the United States would continue the “development and testing of space-based defenses, specifically space-based kinetic energy [hit-to-kill] interceptors and advanced target tracking satellites.” The Pentagon has indicated that a Space-Based Interceptor Test Bed, intended to develop and test plans for a lightweight space-based kinetic kill interceptor, is expected to conduct its first experiment in 2012.

Within the next year, the Pentagon expects to launch into low-Earth orbit (LEO) its first Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite, designed to gather information on ballistic missiles during the first few minutes of their flight. Although the NFIRE at this point is only charged with gathering information, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had originally planned to include a kill vehicle in the NFIRE’s payload and could presumably change its mind again.

Moreover, research on a Space-Based Laser (SBL) had been conducted for some time for boost-phase missile defense. Although MDA cancelled the SBL program in 2002, a number of directed-energy initiatives can still be found in various other programs. The possibility of reviving the SBL program in MDA is still there.

Similarly, other space programs could be turned into weapons. For instance, the Air Force has a research project on small satellites, the Experimental Satellite System (XSS), that seeks to use such satellites to conduct “proximity operations,” maneuvers around other satellites. Some have said the XSS satellites could be used to inspect, service, or attack other satellites.[6] The Air Force in April launched the satellite XSS-11 as part of the series. In addition, the Air Force has considered using weapons for prompt global force projection through space, such as the common aero vehicle and Hypervelocity Rod Bundles (often termed “rods from God”).[7] Such space-based global strike capability would allow the United States to target and strike any point on earth in less than 90 minutes with complete surprise and provide the capability for flexible strikes for different types of targets, such as hard and deeply buried targets or mobile targets.

Space Weapons and China’s Security

The United States clearly has legitimate concerns about its space assets, given that U.S. military operations and the U.S. economy are increasingly dependent on them. Satellites are inherently vulnerable to attacks from many different sources, including ground-based missiles, lasers, and radiation from a high-altitude nuclear explosion. However, it does not mean that the United States currently faces credible threats from states that might exploit those vulnerabilities.[8] Most analysts believe no country seriously threatens U.S. space assets.[9]

Only the United States and, in the Cold War era, the Soviet Union have explored, tested, and developed space weapons; Russia placed a moratorium on its program in the 1980s. To be sure, a number of countries, including China, are capable of attacking U.S. satellites with nuclear weapons, but such an attack would be foolhardy, as it would almost certainly be met by a deadly U.S. response. Moreover, as many experts point out, space-based weapons cannot protect satellites because these weapons are nearly as vulnerable to attack as the satellites themselves.[10] No wonder that many countries, including China and Russia, have sought multilateral negotiations on the prevention of space weaponization.

A Loss of Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Capability

Many Chinese officials assume that China is the real target for U.S. missile defense and space planning. From Beijing’s perspective, it is inconceivable that Washington would expend such massive resources on a system that would be purely defensive and aimed only at “rogue” states. As seen by Chinese leaders, China’s own small strategic nuclear arsenal appears to be a much more plausible target for U.S. missile defenses.[11]

Chinese experts are concerned that even a limited missile defense system could neutralize China’s fewer than two dozen single-warhead ICBMs that are capable of reaching the United States. “It is evident that the U.S. [national missile defense] will seriously undermine the effectiveness of China’s limited nuclear capability from the first day of its deployment,” said Ambassador Sha Zukang, the former director-general of the Department of Arms Control and Disarmament at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This cannot but cause grave concerns to China,” he said.[12] Some Chinese fear that, whether or not the U.S. missile defenses are as effective as planned, U.S. decision-makers could act rashly and risk a disarming first strike once the system is operational.

Beijing is particularly concerned about the refusal of the United States, unlike China, to declare a no-first-use nuclear policy. The Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) feeds these anxieties. The NPR specifically mentions the possibility of using nuclear weapons during a conflict in the Taiwan Strait and the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. The Pentagon’s draft Doctrine on Joint Nuclear Operations would maintain an aggressive nuclear posture including the possible use of nuclear weapons to pre-empt an adversary’s attack with weapons of mass destruction and increasing the role of such weapons in regional (theater) nuclear operations.[13] Thus, some experts fret that the U.S. policy of possible first use of nuclear weapons, in combination with its missiles defenses and a lowered nuclear threshold, could encourage Washington to resort to the threat or use of nuclear weapons against China over Taiwan.

U.S. plans for global force projection would pose another threat to China. Some proposed space weapons such as common aero vehicles would be used to target hard and deeply buried as well as mobile targets. Such weapons would pose a major threat to the nuclear arsenal of mobile ICBMs that China is in the process of developing.

Consequently, China worries that the combination of future U.S. space weapons and its missile defense system could subject China to political or strategic blackmail. Such systems would give the United States much more freedom to intervene in China’s affairs, including undermining China’s efforts at reunification with Taiwan. This concern is enhanced by U.S. moves in recent years to boost cooperation in research and development of advanced theater missile defense with Japan and potentially with Taiwan.

Arms Competition in Space and On Earth

One major Chinese concern about U.S. space weaponization plans, as addressed frequently in statements at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), is that the deployment of space weapons “will disrupt strategic balance and stability, undermine international and national security and do harm to the existing arms control instruments, in particular those related to nuclear weapons and missiles, thus triggering new arms races.”[14]

Because space weapons are at once threatening and vulnerable, it is reasonable to assume that other countries would attempt to block such a move by political and, if necessary, military means. One possible response, for example, would be the development of anti-satellite weapons to target space-based weapon systems. It is widely believed that space weapons and sensor satellites would themselves become prime high-value targets and the most vulnerable elements for defense suppression attacks.[15] It is reasonable to believe that other countries could resort to a number of low-cost and relatively low-technology anti-satellite devices to counter those critical and vulnerable U.S. space-based weapons. Eventually, China fears that the U.S. space weaponization plan would lead to an arms race in outer space and turn outer space into a battlefield.

Moreover, space weaponization would seriously disrupt the arms control and disarmament process. The initiation of U.S. space-based missile defenses would likely cause Russia as well as the United States (in response to Russia) to make smaller reductions in their nuclear arsenals. China would likely be forced to build more warheads to maintain its nuclear deterrent, which could in turn encourage India and then Pakistan to follow suit. Also, Russia has threatened to respond to any country’s deployment of space weapons. Failure to proceed with the nuclear disarmament process would also further undermine the already fragile nuclear nonproliferation regime. As Ambassador Hu Xiaodi warned in 2001, “With lethal weapons flying overhead in orbit and disrupting global strategic stability, why should people eliminate [weapons of mass destruction] or missiles on the ground? This cannot but do harm to global peace, security and stability, hence be detrimental to the fundamental interests of all states.”

Limitations on China’s Civilian And Commercial Space Activities

As addressed in a Chinese proposal to hold talks on a proposed agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space (PAROS) at the CD in 2002, Beijing argues that “outer space is the common heritage of mankind and plays an ever-increasing role in its future development.” In its 2004 defense White Paper, Beijing further emphasized that “ China hopes that the international community would take action as soon as possible to conclude an international legal instrument on preventing the weaponization of and arms race in outer space through negotiations, to ensure the peaceful use of outer space.”[16]

China is particularly concerned that space weaponization could limit its civilian and commercial space activities and negatively affect its economic development. Today, China has various operational civilian satellites in space, a family of launchers, a modern space-launch complex, and a growing list of customers in the international satellite-launch market.[17] Since launching its first satellite in 1970, China has made steady progress both in launch vehicle design and in other areas of space technology development for civilian and commercial purposes. China has developed manned spacecraft and a high-reliability launching vehicle. Between November 1999 and December 2002, China launched four unmanned experimental Shenzhou (Magic Ship) spacecraft. In October 2003, China successfully launched the Shenzhou-5 manned spaceship and, in October 2005, the Shenzhou-6 manned spaceship. China is now planning to explore the moon with unmanned spacecraft. The U.S. pursuit of space control would threaten China’s civilian and commercial space activities and perhaps even deny China access to space.

Space Debris

China also fears the increasing population of space debris. Such debris, resulting from 50 years of space activity, already poses a considerable hazard to spacecraft. Under U.S. space weaponization plans, this crowding problem could worsen as a large number of space weapons could be deployed in LEO. The launching and testing of weapons would also increase space debris. Moreover, deploying space-based weapons in the increasingly crowded realm of LEO would leave less room for civilian systems.

Those problems would also occur during periods of peace. If a number of satellites were to be destroyed during the course of a war, some scientists warn, they would create so much debris that it would prevent future satellites from being stationed in space and generally limit space access. Indeed, pointing to the debris problem, Chinese scientists and officials have said that space weaponization should be considered an environmental threat as well as a security problem.

China’s Options

Historically, China’s stated purpose for developing nuclear weapons was to guard itself against nuclear blackmail. Beijing’s official statements do not discuss potential responses to U.S. space weaponization, but many Chinese officials and scholars argue that China must ensure that U.S. efforts do not negate the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent. As one Chinese official stated:

China is not in a position to conduct an arms race with the United States and it does not intend to do so, particularly in the field of missile defense. However, China will not sit idly by and watch its strategic interests being jeopardized without taking necessary measures. It is quite possible and natural for China to review its military doctrine and a series of policies on the relationship with big powers, Taiwan issues, arms control and nonproliferation, etc.

Certainly, the best option for China is to reach an arms control agreement to prevent space weaponization, as it is advocating now. However, if this effort fails and if what China perceives as its legitimate security concerns are ignored, China would very likely develop other responses to neutralize the perceived threat. Because it is not clear what type of missile defense system the United States will finally deploy or whether the U.S. space control plans will be implemented, it is difficult to identify conclusively China’s specific countermeasures. Yet, there are certain options that it would be likely to consider. It should be noted that these discussions are based on China’s capabilities and do not characterize China’s intentions.

Build More ICBMs

One of China’s simplest options would be to build more ICBMs. Until now, although China has the smallest declared nuclear arsenal of the five nuclear-weapon states, its modernization efforts have been aimed more at quality than quantity. The current effort focuses mainly on enhancing the survivability of its strategic nuclear force through greater mobility. By contrast, the size of the force has grown quite modestly. Absent U.S. missile defense plans, China might be expected to build no more than 50 ICBMs by 2015.

China’s plans could change significantly were the United States to deploy a more comprehensive or more operationally successful missile defense. To maintain a credible minimum retaliatory capability, the size and quality of China’s nuclear arsenal would have to shift.

Predicting an exact response is difficult without knowing the specifications of a U.S. missile defense system, including the numbers of interceptors and the firing doctrine. However, one could project the potential changes in size of China’s nuclear arsenal based on a few simple assumptions. For example, China might need about 100-300 ICBMs to defeat the current U.S. system if that system employed 100-250 interceptors. Clearly, China would need even more warheads to penetrate a layered ballistic missile defense system.

Missile Defense Countermeasures

China could also employ a number of technically feasible and cost-effective measures so that its warheads would stand a strong chance of penetrating a missile defense system.

A number of countermeasures could defeat a midcourse missile defense system like the current one in Alaska.[18] For example, each ICBM could be deployed with decoys. Conversely, China might also disguise the warhead as a decoy by enclosing it in a radar-reflecting balloon, covering it with a shroud, hiding it in a cloud of chaff, or using electronic or infrared jamming measures. Beijing has already demonstrated that it can use decoys and similar capabilities. It has been reported that China has already made some missile flight tests with penetration aids, such as the 1999 flight test of China’s new DF-31 ICBM.

Similarly, a number of measures could be developed to counter a space-based interceptor.[19] One countermeasure would be to develop technology to boost rockets faster, rendering important boost-phase defenses impotent. China has already made steps in this direction by developing solid-fuel ICBMs that burn faster than its previous liquid-fueled missiles.

If the spaced-based laser were to be revived, specific countermeasures could be developed. The countermeasures could include rotating the missile to distribute the laser energy over a wide area, thus preventing the missile from being damaged, or protecting the vulnerable parts of the ICBM with reflective or ablative coatings.[20] Moreover, the attacker could simultaneously launch several ICBMs or an ICBM with some theater or tactical ballistic missiles used as decoys from a compact area to overwhelm space-based weapon systems.

Anti-Satellite Weapons

Moreover, it is reasonable to believe that China could resort to asymmetric methods, such as anti-satellite weapons, to counter critical and vulnerable space-based components in LEO such as space-based interceptors, a space-based laser, or space-based tracking satellites.

China’s best anti-satellite pick might be small, ground-launched kinetic-kill vehicles, which can be used to destroy their target by colliding with it at extremely high velocity. Such weapons are relatively cheap and technically easy and should be well within China’s grasp. These vehicles could reach a satellite in LEO; if mated with a larger booster, they might be capable of reaching higher orbits. Another possible anti-satellite weapon would be a space mine armed with conventional charges. China could also resort to using missiles to deliver a cloud of shrapnel to a particular spot in LEO at a precise time and destroy a space-based interceptor or space-launch satellite as it arrives there.

Countries such as China that have the ability to place objects in orbit or lift them to geosynchronous altitude can also track objects closely in space. Beijing should thus have the ability to develop weapons that could attack satellites either in low-Earth or geosynchronous orbit.

Still, it should be noted that, although China has some technology capabilities that could be used potentially as anti-satellite weapons, it does not mean China has already developed them or has the intention to do so. Several recent editions of the Pentagon’s Chinese military power report claim China is developing and intends to deploy such weapons, including a direct-ascent system, ground-based laser anti-satellite weapons, and microsatellites for weapons purposes.

However, there is no evidence to back up these claims, and China would have been foolish to pursue such weapons, given the diplomatic damage it would have caused amid its two-decade-long ardent support for preventing the weaponization of outer space. However, if the United States moves forward with space-based weapons, there would far less diplomatic cost to doing so.

Reconsidering China’s Arms Control Participation

U.S.-led space weaponization might also lead China to reconsider its participation in some multilateral nuclear arms control treaties. As Ambassador Sha Zukang stated, “ China cannot afford to sit on its hands without taking the necessary measures while its strategic interests are being jeopardized. China, inter alia, may be forced to review the arms control and nonproliferation policies it has adopted since the end of the Cold War in light of new developments in the international situation.”

For example, a need for more weapons would mean a need for more plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel those weapons and thus likely hurt China’s support for a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). My conservative estimate is that China’s existing stockpile contains about two tons of weapons-grade HEU and one ton of separated plutonium, which could fuel approximately 300 warheads. Thus, this existing stockpile would be sufficient for its current modernization program. However, if China were driven to expand its ICBM arsenal significantly because of missile defense deployments, it might feel compelled to be able to retain the option to restart production of fissile materials and be unwilling to join an FMCT.

Indeed, China has linked these issues since 2000, contending that the space weaponization issue “is just as important as fissile material cut-off, if not more.” For several years, China demanded that FMCT and PAROS talks be launched at the same time. But the United States opposed any negotiations on the outer space issue, and the disagreement prevented the CD from continuing any arms control negotiations for several years. Aiming to break the deadlock at the CD and to promote the international arms control and disarmament process, China dropped in 2003 its linkage between an FMCT and the PAROS negotiations and agreed to a negotiation of an FMCT. China is still seeking PAROS talks, however.

A U.S. move into space could also lead China to reconsider its support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). China signed the CTBT in 1996 and has not yet ratified it, partly because it was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999. However, U.S. missile defense and space weaponization plans would make Chinese ratification even more difficult. China may feel the need for additional nuclear tests if the need to counter a missile defense drives Beijing to develop new warheads that include decoys or maneuverable warheads. Already, China faces concerns from some experts who think that the CTBT will put more direct constraints on China’s nuclear weapons program than on the weapons programs of other states.

Conclusion: A Ban on Space Weaponization

Given the possibility of effective and cheap countermeasures, it seems foolish to many Chinese that the United States would bother to deploy highly expensive space-based weapons or anti-satellite technologies. If Washington really wants to reduce the potential vulnerability of its space assets, there are a number ways to improve space security, including technical approaches, rules of the road, and arms control agreements. By contrast, weaponizing space can only further worsen space security. As Hu emphasized recently, “[F]or ensuring security in outer space, political and legal approaches…can still be effective, while resorting to force and the development of space weapons will only be counter-productive.”

In China’s view, the most effective way to secure space assets would be to agree on a ban on space weaponization. As its working paper to the CD emphasizes, “Only a treaty-based prohibition of the deployment of weapons in outer space and the prevention of the threat or use of force against outer space objects can eliminate the emerging threat of an arms race in outer space and ensure the security for outer space assets of all countries which is an essential condition for the maintenance of world peace.”

China’s stance on banning weapons in outer space has been consistent since 1985 when it first introduced a working paper to the CD on its position on space weapons. China’s most recent working paper on the issue, introduced in June 2002, emphasizes three basic obligations:

  • Not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying any kinds of weapons, not to install such weapons on celestial bodies, or not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

  • Not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.

  • Not to assist or encourage other states, groups of states, and international organizations to participate in activities prohibited by this treaty.

In order to advance the CD work on the PAROS issue, in August 2004 China together with Russia prepared two nonpapers on the issues of “verification aspects of PAROS” and “existing international legal instruments and the prevention of the weaponization of outer space” and in June 2005 one more nonpaper on the issue of “definition issues regarding legal instruments on the prevention of weaponization of outer space.”

The nonpaper on verification offers a view that a verification regime in a future outer space treaty will be highly complicated and difficult and will encounter great technological and financial challenges. It does not rule out a verification protocol in the future but seeks to sidestep this from becoming an obstacle to getting started on PAROS negotiations. So, it urges that an outer space legal instrument be formulated without verification procedures for the time being. It cites the case of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to show that, even without a verification mechanism, a treaty can be effective and play an important role.

The Chinese initiative has considerable support. In recent years, the UN General Assembly has adopted by overwhelming majorities resolutions calling for the CD to start a negotiation on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space agreement. These votes do not appear to have impressed the United States. John Bolton, then-U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation, told the CD in 2002 that “the current international regime regulating the use of space meets all our purposes. We see no need for new agreements.”

Yet, Bolton is clearly in error. No existing treaties effectively prevent the testing, deployment, and use of weapons other than those of mass destruction in outer space. In addition, none of these instruments covers the threat or use of force from Earth, including land, sea, and atmosphere, against objects in outer space. If the history of proliferation tells us anything, it is that banning the testing and deployment of weapons from the outset is much more effective than attempting disarmament and nonproliferation after the fact.

Hui Zhang is a research associate in the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


1. “Report to the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” Washington, DC, January 11, 2001.

2. U.S. Air Force, “Counterspace Operations,” Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2, 2004.

3. The scope of space weaponry, generally accepted by many Chinese, includes not only weapons stationed in outer space but also weapons anywhere that target objects in outer space. See Liu Huaqiu, ed., Arms Control and Disarmament Handbook ( Beijing: National Defense Industry, 2000).

4. Fu Zhigang, “Concerns and Responses: A Chinese Perspective on NMD/TMD,” Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defense & Alternative Security Arrangements, Ottawa, September 28-30, 2001.

5. Qiu Yong, “Analysis on the ASAT Capability of the GMD Interceptor,” Presentation at the 16th International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs, Beijing, July 17-25, 2004.

6. Jeffrey Lewis, “Programs to Watch,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

7. Bob Preston et al., Space Weapons, Earth Wars, MR-1209 ( Washington, DC: RAND, June 2002); Bruce DeBlois et al., “Star-Crosses,” IEEE Spectrum, May 2005.

8. See Federation of American Scientists, “Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space,” October 2004.

9. See Jeffrey Lewis, “False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities,” Arms Control Today, November 2004.

10. See David Wright et al., The Physics of Space Security: A Reference Manual ( Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, May 2005); Bruce DeBlois et al., “Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon,” International Security, vol. 29, no. 2 (Fall 2004).

11. Sha Zukang, “U.S. Missile Defense Plans: China’s View,” Disarmament Diplomacy, no. 43, 2000.

12. Sha Zukang, “The Impact of the U.S. Missile Defense Programme on the Global Security Structure,” CPAPD/ORG Joint Seminar on Missile Defense and the Future of the ABM Treaty, Beijing, March 13-15, 2000.

13. Hans Kristensen, “The Roles of U.S. Nuclear Weapons: New Doctrine Falls Short of Bush Pledge,” Arms Control Today, September 2005.

14. Statement by Ambassador Hu Xiaodi at the Plenary of the 2nd Part of the 2005 Session of the Conference on Disarmament, June 30, 2005.

15. See Ashton Carter, “The Relationship of ASAT and BMD Systems,” in Weapons in Space, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986).

16. Information Office of the PRC State Council, “White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2004,” December 27, 2004.

17. Information Office of the PRC State Council, “White Paper on China’s Space Activities,” November 22, 2000.

18. Andrew Sessler et al., “Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System,” April 2000; Huang Hai, “Technical Analysis of National Missile Defense and Its Effects on World Arms Control,” Presentation at the 13th International Summer Symposium on Science and World Affairs, Berlin, July 21-30, 2001.

19. American Physical Society, “Report of the APS Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense,” Washington, DC, July 2003.

20. See Du Xiangwan, Science and Technology Foundation for Nuclear Arms Control (Beijing: National Defense Industry, 1996).


China's Export Controls: Can Beijing's Actions Match Its Words?

Anupam Srivastava

At their September plenary in Madrid, members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) decided not to take up the question of inviting China to join the group. China had applied to join the voluntary export control regime in July 2004, and that year’s October plenary in Seoul had “failed to reach a consensus” on Beijing’s bid. China’s failure to win consensus support underlines a more fundamental challenge Beijing poses to global nonproliferation efforts and institutions.

Recent interviews with U.S. and British officials reveal the reason for not formally considering Chinese membership again this year was continued concern over Beijing’s implementation of pledges to adhere to export control standards equivalent to the MCTR. Russia and the United Kingdom were more willing than the United States to acknowledge that China had made progress. But all of the other countries agreed that Beijing still needed to do much more to block certain weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-sensitive exports.

China has vastly improved its legal and procedural infrastructure to control trade in strategic goods and technologies.[1] Yet it has failed to block several instances of proliferation and lacks transparency in enforcement.[2] It is unclear whether the current gaps between policy pronouncements and actual behavior simply mark a transition period to its new responsibilities or if this mixed record is symptomatic of its continued perception of nonproliferation as a “selective, arbitrary tool” employed by Washington and its allies to maintain strategic and technological pre-eminence.

Most evidence indicates that China previously has followed a “bargain-embedded approach” in which its compliance with nonproliferation norms is legalistic, narrow, and largely tactical. U.S. and other Western policymakers have the opportunity to foster a broader, more strategic commitment to nonproliferation in China by demonstrating to Beijing how adhering to nonproliferation norms will serve some of its long-range foreign policy and economic interests.

Recent Changes

Recent years have marked several positive steps by Beijing and some setbacks.

Positive Steps

China has considerably improved the legal and procedural architecture governing its trade in dual-use goods and technologies. The improvements include new export control regulations regarding nuclear, chemical, biological, missile, and advanced conventional weapons and revised national control lists in the above spheres. Cumulatively, they have aligned China’s export control system more closely with the benchmarks established by the multilateral export control arrangements: MTCR; the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which aims to coordinate nuclear export policies to prevent countries from exploiting peaceful nuclear cooperation as a pathway to nuclear weapons; the Australia Group, which regulates exports that could contribute to chemical and biological weapons; and the Wassenaar Arrangement, which seeks to enhance cooperation in preventing sales of conventional arms and dual-use goods to countries or regions of concern.

In 2002, in an important nonproliferation signal, China became the first of the five de jure nuclear-weapon states to amend its domestic legal procedures to complete a voluntary additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such agreements grant the IAEA greater authority to verify that non-nuclear-weapon states do not divert nuclear materials and technologies to weapons programs.

China’s 2003 White Paper on nonproliferation policy and associated measures provided additional evidence of growing domestic commitment. In 2004, China was formally invited to join the NSG, marking China’s membership into the first of the four regimes that it had long criticized as cartels designed to perpetuate the technology superiority of the advanced Western nations.


On the flip side, China’s nuclear and missile relations with Iran and Pakistan have raised questions about China’s commitment to global nonproliferation.[3] Ongoing U.S. and IAEA investigations into the clandestine network headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, have revealed the startling fact that China transferred a design for a 25-kiloton nuclear warhead and open test data to Pakistan in the mid-1980s.[4] This adds to well-known transfers of ring magnets and short-range missiles (M-9 and M-11) in the 1990s for which several Chinese and Pakistani entities were sanctioned by the United States.

In recent years, Chinese firms have been sanctioned many times for providing missile-related assistance to Iran in violation of the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000.[5] In the most recent episode late last year, the sanctioned entities included two of China’s largest companies: China North Industries Corp. (NORINCO) and China Great Wall Industry Corp. Both have been subject to repeated U.S. sanctions since the 1990s and described as part of China’s “serial proliferator” problem by senior officials in the Bush administration.[6]

Critics have also raised questions about a May 2004 Chinese agreement to build a second civilian nuclear reactor at Chasma in Pakistan. Although the agreement predates China’s NSG membership and the reactor will be placed under IAEA safeguards, questions remain about the merit of nuclear transfers to a country whose weak export controls permitted the Khan network to undermine global security and where risks of unauthorized diversion of Chinese technologies and materials to its weapons program remain high. Further, media reports following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s April 2005 visit to Pakistan quote senior Pakistani atomic energy officials saying that China wants to build additional reactors, although doing so would violate its obligations under current NSG guidelines.[7]

If the United States seeks to curb such sales, it will face new challenges following a July 18 agreement with India in which it agreed to provide New Delhi with civilian nuclear assistance.[8] The United States will need to clarify to China and other NSG members that its deal with India is a special case, justified by India’s strong nonproliferation record and by particular commitments New Delhi has made to separate its civilian reactors from its weapons complex and place the former under IAEA safeguards and to align its dual-use control lists with those of the MTCR and the NSG. Such explicit clarification would also enable the United States to rebuff any Pakistani expectations that Islamabad can receive similar treatment from Washington unless its record on enforcement improves.

Legal Authorities

According to government officials, China is currently drafting a new, overarching export control law to bring its national export control authorities under one statutory umbrella and to provide additional legal force to the 2004 Foreign Trade Law.[9] The current law, which amended a decade-old statute, provides legal authority to administer export controls in China and has strengthened criminal and administrative sanctions against illegal trade operations, including potential cancellation of operators’ licenses.

Although no details about the draft law or the timeline for its promulgation are available, additional changes to Chinese export control laws are required following China’s entry into the NSG and as the country further integrates into the international nonproliferation regime.

Even before the Foreign Trade Law, China had already made significant changes in its export control laws and regulation in recent years.

In late 2002, China promulgated new munitions, chemical, biological, and missile-related export control measures. Together with revised regulations in the nuclear sphere in 2001 and in customs and criminal law in 2000 and 2001, respectively, the measures effectively harmonized China’s legal infrastructure of export controls with multilateral standards. The arms control measures also enabled the international community to better assess China’s export control performance.

Other official regulations promulgated over the last 10 years provide additional legal authority to administer export controls, including China’s obligations as a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Biological Weapons Convention, and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and to carry out international trade sanctions mandated by relevant UN Security Council resolutions.


China’s entry into the IAEA in 1984 and the NPT in 1992 helped establish domestic legal authority in the nuclear sphere. Administrative circulars issued in May and September 1997 included control lists similar to those of the NSG and the Zangger Committee, a smaller 35-member group of nuclear suppliers that produces the so-called “trigger list” of nuclear materials, equipment and technology requiring IAEA safeguards. A June 1998 circular, which was amended in 2001, brought China’s nuclear and nuclear dual-use export control regulations into effective compliance with international standards. Following its NSG membership, China has said it plans to publish an amended nuclear dual-use control list and regulations in 2005 that will make them identical to the NSG, but it has not yet done so.


In the missile sector, China’s August 2002 regulations have harmonized its legal provisions with those of the MTCR. Further, the revised control list is virtually identical to the MTCR’s equipment, technology, and software annex. The real gap, however, lies in Beijing’s markedly slender technical interpretation of the military end uses of critical dual-use technologies in adjudicating license applications, especially when exporting to end users in countries of proliferation concern such as Iran.

Chemical Weapons and Technology

China approved chemical weapons and technology regulations in 1995 incorporating its CWC commitments into national law, and the appended control list contained four schedules that capture all items covered by the three CWC schedules and a fourth CWC category of unscheduled discrete organic chemicals. Its October 2002 regulations and the appended dual-use control list now cover all items on the Australia Group equipment and related technologies list as well as 20 dual-use items considered possible chemical weapons precursors, bringing China’s lists into effective compliance with CWC and Australia Group control lists.[10]

Biological Weapons and Technology

China published its first-ever export control statute in the biological weapons and technology realm in October 2002. Before this, dual-use biological items and technologies were regulated by an assortment of national laws, none of which specifically addressed dual-use biological export controls. This gap was closed with the control list appended to the 2002 regulations that is identical to the Australia Group control list.

Conventional Arms

China followed up its 1997 regulations by publishing a revised set of conventional arms regulations in October 2002 and a military products export control list a month later. Although this control list includes most items in the Wassenaar Arrangement’s control list, it provides far broader categories and vaguer definitions. This lack of specificity could be exploited by Chinese enterprises to evade responsibility for certain transfers.

China has in recent years also begun to incorporate provisions that relate to emerging issues of international concern. Thus, each set of the 2002 regulations explicitly covers not only traditional exports but also intangible technology transfers and the difficult issues of “deemed exports.” Such exports might occur, for example, if information that would require an export license is shared by a U.S. citizen with a foreign national on U.S. soil. In that case, information is “deemed” to have been exported to the home country of the foreign national and, as such, requires an export license.

Moreover, Article 16 in each of these regulations contains a catch-all clause that instructs the exporting entity not to export an item if “it knows or should know…that the [item] will be used by the receiving party directly for the purpose of [WMD programs], whether included in the control list or not.” Article 6 of the December 2003 White Paper further amplifies this new legal responsibility of the domestic exporter. China is reportedly working to introduce this clause in the revised nuclear guidelines that will be published to incorporate changes necessitated by its NSG membership. However, implementation of catchall controls might violate China’s 2004 Administrative Law, which stipulates that mere suspicion of diversion or proliferation is not sufficient grounds to block the export or import of goods or technology.

Brokering, transit, and transshipment controls represent areas of remaining weakness in the legal system. According to the Ministry of Commerce, China does not recognize the status of brokers in export transactions. This makes it unclear whether China disallows brokering activities or they simply remain unregulated. Also, no provisions are specifically designed to control the transit or transshipment of strategic goods and technologies. Article 24 of the amended Customs Law does require all transits, transshipments, and through-shipments of sensitive items to be declared to customs authorities, but it does not provide the legal basis to regulate their movement through Chinese territory.

Export Licensing Process

The publication of comprehensive licensing regulations for all strategic commodity classes by late 2003 has opened China’s export control system to an unprecedented degree of regulatory transparency, although in some areas, the military in particular, responsibility remains unclear. Licensing regulations are publicly accessible, and the December 2003 White Paper provides details of how China’s dual-use export licenses are processed.

China’s licensing and regulatory institutions also have been restructured in a process that began in 1998. The Export Control Division of the Science and Technology Department in the Ministry of Commerce is the main licensing and regulatory body for dual-use export controls, but a number of Chinese agencies are tasked to participate in the interagency review of licenses:

  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs principally evaluates the foreign policy or national security implication of a proposed export or whether it might violate China’s international treaty obligations.


  • The National CWC Implementation Office is charged with regulating the domestic dual-use chemical sector and implementing China’s CWC commitments.


  • The China Atomic Energy Authority licenses nuclear trade and issues governmental assurances to foreign regulatory bodies.


  • The Ministries of Health and Agriculture participate in the review process in their relevant domains. The Ministry of Commerce also can call on a cadre of 200 experts from diverse technical fields as required.

The main licensing body to administer controls on advanced conventional weapons exports is the Commission on Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND). Prior to the 1998 restructuring, it reported both to the State Council and the Central Military Commission of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The 1998 restructuring wrested the arms export control agenda away from the PLA. Now under civilian control, COSTIND generally reports to the State Council, but its arms trade division receives and vets licenses for conventional and certain missile-related items. However, the vetting and eventual approval of export licenses also requires extensive consultation with the PLA’s General Armaments Department, with oversight from the Central Military Commission. As a result, there is continued ambiguity about controls on conventional arms exports and regulations governing export behavior of the reorganized defense industrial enterprises of China that have resulted in several questionable exports to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea in recent years.

Enforcement as the Litmus Test

Enforcement is presently the weakest link in China’s export control system. A wide disparity exists between the dictates of established Chinese law and the capacity of the Chinese state to consistently enforce them. For China, this is a significant challenge. Overcoming it will require both political will and a massive injection of physical, technical, and financial resources. Given China’s checkered track record of controlling trade in sensitive goods and technologies, the international community is likely to use effective enforcement as the ultimate criterion for assessing Beijing’s commitment to nonproliferation.

In recent years, China has sought to close the long-standing gap between official pronouncements and actual behavior by strengthening and clarifying the criminal and civil penalties incurred for export control-related violations. The Customs Laws of the People’s Republic of China, originally promulgated in 1987 and amended in 2000, provides the General Administration of Customs enhanced legal authority to control cross-border traffic, including the right to search, detain, and seize cargo leaving China. The Ministry of Commerce has provided additional authorization and guidelines to General Administration of Customs to inspect any cargo suspected to be an illegal export. China’s recent decision to join the U.S.-led Container Security Initiative (CSI) and to make Hong Kong and Shanghai CSI-compliant ports will require additional provisions and capacity for real-time coordination among intelligence agencies, customs officials, and border guards for search and seizure of WMD-sensitive cargo in domestic ports or territorial waters.

For now, export control enforcement remains opaque and susceptible to jurisdictional turf-battles, with prosecution dependent on the type of violation. Customs-related violations are presumably enforced by customs, CWC-related violations by local government bodies, criminal law-related violations by the Public Security Bureau and the General Attorney for the Prosecution Office, and Administrative Law-related violations by local government offices. The Ministry of Commerce also reportedly handles certain aspects of export control enforcement. China’s export control enforcement is weakened by overlapping jurisdictional claims, unclear designation of lead agencies to prosecute violations, and bureaucratic wrangling.

A persistent problem in ascertaining the scale of illicit dual-use proliferation from China results from its lack of transparency. China does not make publicly available such data as the number of license applications, number of license approvals and denials, reasons for denial, instances where catch-all controls were employed, and number of violations prosecuted annually. In 2004, Beijing for the first time announced that two chemical companies in China were found guilty of export control violations. However, no specific information is available about the precise nature of violations and the type of penalties imposed on them.

In addition, Beijing still relies mainly on foreign intelligence to unearth illicit transactions.[11] China’s very limited use of pre-license checks and post-shipment verification increases the risk of unauthorized diversion of an export to prohibited end uses or its re-export to prohibited end users. These problems are exacerbated by widespread corruption and the lack of an independent judiciary.

It is important to recognize, however, the enormity of the challenge that China confronts, given that it has one of the longest land-air-sea borders in the world. The General Administration of Customs, in charge of all cargo clearing China’s borders, employs 46,000 officials stationed in 41 customhouses across the country. In addition, it oversees 300 affiliated customhouses and 245 ports, while the Public Security Bureau and the People’s Armed Police secure the areas immediately outside of customs surveillance zones. Customs officials possess specialized equipment to detect nuclear, biological, chemical, and dual-use items, although the quality of the equipment, the familiarity of the staff with the equipment, and the motivation to monitor illicit transactions rigorously varies markedly from one border post to another. Many customhouses are equipped with large-scale X-ray machines, electronic platform balances, plate identification systems, electronic gates, and container number identification systems. Several others lack even rudimentary equipment and training for its staff. A good case in point is Dandong, located on China’s border with North Korea. According to unnamed Chinese government officials, it lacks basic equipment to scan vehicles and large containers and adequate space for on-site inspections. Effective enforcement efforts at China’s border posts and custom houses, especially in the southern and western provinces, are routinely undermined by seasoned smugglers.

A New Export Control Dynamic

With the enactment of the 2002 laws and regulations, a new dynamic is apparent within China’s official export control community.[12] One school of thought views the new laws and regulations as sufficiently detailed and easily accessible so that companies have no excuse for ignorance. As such, if domestic companies are now found in violation, stiff penalties and prosecutions should deter future offenders as well as send the message for industry to comply with its new and increased export control obligations.

Another school of thought recognizes industry as the “first line of defense” to prevent unauthorized exports, as well as the need for increasing outreach to the industry. To this group, improved interaction with the industry is crucial because most advanced technologies are dual-use in nature and increasingly fungible within and across civilian and military sectors. This problem gets compounded in a continent-sized country with extensive and often undermanned or under-equipped borders.

Further, the post-World Trade Organization economic landscape of China has seen a steady growth in the number of dual-use producing industries basing manufacturing and trading operations in China to serve markets in the country and abroad. Yet, even those government officials who recognize the critical need for more outreach to the industry are often unwilling to cooperate with other departments in organizing outreach workshops or are lukewarm in supporting domestic or foreign nongovernmental entities in such endeavors.

In a broader context, China’s “mixed record” in the multilateral arena underscores the difficulty in ascertaining the degree to which its policy elite and industry managers have imbibed the normative and practical components of export controls and the overarching nonproliferation “security culture.” China’s agreement to build additional nuclear reactors in Pakistan while its application to the NSG was pending and its missile-related transfers to Iran while its MTCR application is still pending points to a continued bargain-embedded approach toward its nonproliferation obligations. Similarly, following the December 2004 sanctions, NORINCO offered to develop an internal compliance program in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions—an offer that was rejected—instead of abjuring such transfers in order to end sanctions and facilitate its goal of doing business in the United States.

In framing future nonproliferation negotiations with China, a critical issue to bear in mind is the pivotal role of high technology in China’s economic and security priorities. China has emerged as the global manufacturing hub for low-technology products but recognizes that its cost advantages are fleeting and that, in order to attract foreign investments in advanced technology, it needs to improve the state of technology security and build up its high-technology sectors. Viewed from this perspective, export controls can be a tool to help China achieve its strategic objectives and by extension can provide important leverage for securing greater Chinese cooperation on nonproliferation.

Similarly, Beijing’s developmental imperatives have prompted the doctrine of “peaceful rise of China” (heping jueqi) and a dedicated pursuit to increase its comprehensive national power.[13] Its recent, energetic diplomacy with its neighbors in Southeast Asia and Central Asia, many of whom are battling rising Islamic militancy and terrorism, reveals its desire to assure them that China would be a factor of stability in Asia. Lack of adequate safeguards on China’s own strategic arsenal would undermine their confidence in China’s leadership credentials within the evolving security architecture of Asia. This represents another important avenue for calibrating U.S. and multilateral negotiations to secure greater Chinese cooperation on nonproliferation.

Finally, the European Union is currently debating whether to lift its arms embargo stemming from China’s Tiananmen Square incident of 1989. Lifting the embargo could give China access to EU arms and technologies that are superior to those it is currently acquiring from Russia and Israel. The EU, under the United Kingdom’s current presidential term, is unlikely to lift the embargo, but the issue might be revisited in the spring of 2006 during the Austrian presidency of the EU.

If and when it tackles the issue again, one useful condition that the EU could tacitly impose for lifting the embargo—although it was imposed for human rights violations—would be to require China first to demonstrate a practical improvement in its export control implementation and safeguarding of sensitive technologies. Indeed, U.S. and EU officials confirm that this factor has featured prominently in their deliberations. Further, the Pentagon’s July 2005 report to Congress on Chinese military power warns that lifting the embargo could lead to greater proliferation from China:

Beijing ’s track record in transfers of conventional arms and military suggests EU or other third-party sales to China could lead to improvements in the systems that Chinese companies market abroad, including to countries of concern, such as Iran. Of note, some of China’s major recipients of military assistance— Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe—all are subject to EU arms embargoes.[14]

In sum, China’s economic priorities and foreign policy goals stress a growing need to improve export controls and strengthen technology security in its civilian and military enterprises. A wise policy for the United States and its allies to follow would be to leverage China’s growing self-interest in stronger adherence to global nonproliferation regimes and practice to push Beijing to improve the transparency and enforcement of its export control obligations and to help it meet its growing international responsibilities.

Anupam Srivastava is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia.


1. “PRC White Paper: China Adheres to Enforcing Nonproliferation Export Control,” Xinhua, September 1, 2005.

2. Evan S. Medeiros, “Chasing the Dragon: Assessing China’s System of Export Controls for WMD-Related Goods and Technologies,” RAND, 2005.

3. Stephen Rademaker, Remarks to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 10, 2005.

4. See William Burr, ed., “ China, Pakistan, and the Bomb: The Declassified File on U.S. Policy, 1977-1997,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 114, March 5, 2004.

5. The Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 authorizes the president to penalize any foreign entity that transfers items to Iran that could aid its pursuit of dangerous weapons.

6. David Sanger , “ U.S. Is Punishing 8 Chinese Firms for Aiding Iran,” New York Times, January 18, 2005.

7. “ Pakistan to Build More Nuclear Power Plants With Chinese Help,” News ( Islamabad), April 9, 2005.

8. “ Pakistan Wants Civilian Nuclear Deal,” Associated Press, September 8, 2005; Wade Boese, “Bush Promises India Nuclear Cooperation,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, pp. 23-25. See Harold Bengelsdorf, Fred McGoldrick, and Lawrence Scheinman, “India-U.S. Nuclear Deal: Taking Stock,” Arms Control Today, October 2005, pp. 6-12.

9. The Standing Committee of the 10th National People’s Congress of the PRC, Foreign Trade Law of the People’s Republic of China, April 6, 2004.

10. The measures were promulgated by Decree No. 33, dated October 18, 2002, of the then-Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation (now the Ministry of Commerce), the then-State Economic and Trade Commission (now the National Development and Reform Commission), and the General Custom Authority (also known as the General Administration of Customs), and went into effect November 19, 2002.

11. Interviews with author, Shanghai, September 2005; interviews with author, Beijing, June 2004.

12. This assessment is based on diverse communications with members of the export control community in China, the United States, and Europe.

13. Kurt M. Campbell, Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, February 2, 2005.

14. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2005,” p. 25.


Of Madmen and Nukes

Daryl G. Kimball

Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu told journalists last July that China is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the United States if it targets Chinese ships, aircraft, or territory in a confrontation over Taiwan. “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds…of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese,” he warned.

With Zhu’s suicidal nuclear threats as backdrop, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told his military counterparts in Beijing last month that “advances in China’s strategic strike capacity raise questions” about its intentions. Rumsfeld suggested that “greater clarity would generate more certainty in the region.”

Excellent points, Mr. Secretary. But China, of course, is not the only state to amass nuclear weapons to defend and advance its interests. Although other Chinese officials disavowed Zhu’s remarks, he is not the first to suggest, officially or unofficially, that his government is “mad” enough to use massive nuclear force against conventional attacks.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, U.S. presidents have developed policies and issued statements intended to make nuclear threats appear credible and create uncertainty about when and where they might be used. As unnerving as China’s estimated arsenal of 100-400 nuclear weapons and Zhu’s remarks may be, Beijing’s official no-first-use policy arguably makes its posture more restrained than that of the United States today.

To deter other nuclear-armed states, particularly Russia, from attacking with their nuclear arms, current U.S. strategy calls for the maintenance of a massive arsenal of approximately 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on high alert through 2012 and beyond. In addition, the United States will still possess some 3,000 additional strategic warheads in storage and several hundred substrategic weapons.

The Pentagon’s March 2005 draft “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” also outlines a wide range of options to deal with non-nuclear scenarios. It would allow for the possible first use of nuclear weapons to help support U.S. forces or allies against conventional attacks, such as a conflict with China over Taiwan, as well as other scenarios, including pre-emptive nuclear strikes on suspected chemical or biological weapons targets in non-nuclear-weapon states.

Given the absence of a hostile, well-armed nuclear adversary, U.S. conventional military dominance, and the possibility that additional states might acquire nuclear weapons, is such a large U.S. arsenal and expansive view of the role of nuclear weapons necessary, justifiable, and sustainable? No.

There is no conceivable circumstance in which the United States would need to use or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to fight or terminate a conventional conflict with a non-nuclear adversary. On several occasions, U.S. presidents from Truman and Eisenhower to Kennedy, Nixon, and George H. W. Bush have considered the limited use of nuclear weapons in tactical situations, but they have always rejected doing so. The calculus should be no different today.

Policies that assert a war-fighting role for nuclear weapons only deepen the risk of proliferation. They undermine existing pledges by nuclear-weapon states that they will not use nuclear arms against countries without them. They give states such as North Korea and Iran a cynical excuse to maintain their nuclear weapons options and send a green light to nuclear rivals India and Pakistan to contemplate their battlefield use.

The lessons of the Cuban missile crisis and other U.S.-Soviet confrontations during the Cold War make clear that even limited nuclear engagement risks escalation and unacceptable annihilation. Nuclear weapons are, therefore, not a realistic war-fighting option in a conventional conflict against a nuclear-armed adversary.

Some nuclear acolytes believe new types of weapons are needed to provide “credible” options against future adversaries and targets, including underground bunkers and chemical or biological threats. Such thinking ignores the reality that employing any nuclear weapon would produce disproportionate and unacceptable collateral destruction and severe political fallout.

A saner nuclear weapons policy is feasible and overdue. As long as the United States and others possess nuclear weapons, their role should be limited to deterring other states from using them. Further, if that is their only function, there is no reason why the United States cannot observe a policy of no-first-use. Nor would there be any need to develop and test new nuclear-weapon capabilities or maintain Cold War-sized arsenals on high alert, a condition that risks accidental or unauthorized launch.

It has been 60 years since the last nuclear bomb was used in war. Perhaps more than any other state, the United States has the most to lose if others not only seek to acquire nuclear weapons but come to view them as legitimate and useful instruments of coercion and war. But if U.S. policymakers expect nuclear restraint from China and other states, they must reconsider and readjust the role of U.S. nuclear forces.



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