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August 27, 2018

Long-Delayed Arms Sales to Taiwan Announced

Kirsten McNeil

The Bush administration notified Congress Oct. 3 that it plans to sell more than $6.4 billion in military equipment to Taiwan, triggering sharp criticism from China, which believes that the move would violate bilateral assurances made by Washington to decrease arms transfers to Taiwan.

According to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the bulk of the planned U.S. sale would include 330 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles and 30 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, as well as 182 Javelin guided anti-tank missiles, 32 submarine-launched Harpoon missiles, spare parts for F-16s and other fighter aircraft, and upgrades for four E-2T Hawkeye 2000 early-warning aircraft. The proposed package does not include new F-16 fighter jets or submarines, about which Beijing has been particularly concerned.

Congress has 30 days to review and possibly object to the transfers. The sales will only be finalized after formal agreements are signed between Taiwan and the United States.

China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province, protested the planned sales by canceling or postponing senior-level military visits and humanitarian exchanges with the United States and blocking U.S. military ships from entering Chinese ports. Beijing filed a formal complaint and has called for the deals to be canceled.

As with past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China accused the United States of violating a provision in the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué of 1982, which states that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will decrease in quantity, frequency, and scope based on the levels of that time. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao issued a statement Oct. 6 calling for the United States to “stop disturbing the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, so as to prevent further damage to the Sino-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Department of State deputy spokesperson Robert Wood on Oct. 8 called the Chinese reaction to the latest announcement “unfortunate,” and the Pentagon defended the arms sales as defensive in nature. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States has stated that it is U.S. policy to provide arms for the defense of Taiwan, even though the United States has not formally signed a defense treaty with Taiwan.

By holding off on the sale of F-16s and submarines, however, the United States has avoided transferring the most lethal technologies to Taiwan and the equipment that most worried China.

The Bush administration has been trying to carry out some of the arms sales since 2001, but political wrangling in Taiwan and U.S. fears of upsetting China at a time it is playing a crucial role in nuclear talks with North Korea have helped delay most of the sales. An April 2001 package advanced by President George W. Bush included offers to sell Taiwan eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft, torpedoes, missiles, helicopters, amphibious vehicles, howitzers and four destroyers. However, in 2001, Bush deferred decisions on requests from Taiwan for Aegis-equipped destroyers, Abrams tanks, and Apache helicopters.

In the seven years since the 2001 announcements, some arms sales from the United States were rejected during the political process in Taiwan because of objections from Taiwan’s parliament or judicial system. Within the Taiwan legislature, heated debates occurred over the island’s defense budget, defensive strategy, funding priorities, and differing perceptions of relations with China.

In the period between the 2001 announcement and Oct. 3 announcement, some more limited arms sales did go forward. Twenty arms sales notifications were published by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, including those related to several missile systems, early-warning radars, aircraft, and destroyers. Nonetheless, according to a Dec. 20, 2007, Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, actual deliveries of U.S. arms to Taiwan have been decreasing but are still significant. During 1999-2002, deliveries to Taiwan totaled $5.8 billion; during 2003-2006, $4.1 billion; and in 2006, $970 million.

An opportunity to move forward with some of the sales emerged after Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May 2008, ending the eight-year reign of the Democratic Progressive Party and re-establishing the historically dominant Kuomintang (Chinese nationalist) party. In contrast to his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, Ma has taken a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing and has eased tensions with China by downplaying the issues of Taiwan’s status and formal designation.

Nevertheless, in a statement released on his Web site, Ma welcomed the deal, stating, “We feel that [the Oct. 3] announcement by the U.S. administration marks an end to the turmoil in Taiwan-U.S. relations of the past eight years and also represents the beginning of a new era in peace and security, as well as mutual trust between Taiwan and the United States.”

Although the original 2001 announcements included diesel submarines (see ACT, May 2001), the most recent arms sales announcements did not. The prospect of Taiwan acquiring diesel submarines has raised strong opposition in China and debate over whether these would be considered defensive weapons systems. As noted in a 2008 CRS report, the U.S. Navy accepted a proposal from the Taiwan legislature in 2007 to “start the design phase” for these submarines. The Department of Defense also noted in its most recent annual report on Chinese military power, released March 3, 2008, that the Taiwan legislature after years of delay passed a 2007 defense budget that included “funding for a study that would produce a diesel submarine design.”

The same Defense Department report details the current status of forces surrounding Taiwan. Chinese naval and air forces have an advantage in numbers, except in coastal missile boats and fighters. China has been building up short-range missiles on the coast across the Taiwan Strait at a rate of about 100 additional missiles per year, with current force levels around 1,000 short-range missiles. Ostensibly, the 330 PAC-3 missiles could be used to provide some defense against the mainland’s short-range missiles.

Wendy Morigi, a spokesperson for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Oct. 8 welcomed the arms sale package, calling it “an important response to Taiwan’s defense needs. This action is fully consistent with U.S. obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act. The sale helps to contribute to Taiwan’s defense and the maintenance of a healthy balance in the Taiwan Strait.”

On Oct. 7, the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said the proposed sales do not go far enough because they do not include submarines or new F-16 aircraft. “I urge the administration to reconsider this decision, in light of its previous commitment to provide submarines and America’s previous sales of F-16s,” McCain said.

The Bush administration notified Congress Oct. 3 that it plans to sell more than $6.4 billion in military equipment to Taiwan, triggering sharp criticism from China, which believes that the move would violate bilateral assurances made by Washington to decrease arms transfers to Taiwan.

According to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the bulk of the planned U.S. sale would include 330 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles and 30 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, as well as 182 Javelin guided anti-tank missiles, 32 submarine-launched Harpoon missiles, spare parts for F-16s and other fighter aircraft, and upgrades for four E-2T Hawkeye 2000 early-warning aircraft. The proposed package does not include new F-16 fighter jets or submarines, about which Beijing has been particularly concerned. (Continue)

Type, Targets of Sanctions Shift in Bush Administration

Wade Boese

In September, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed proliferation sanctions on 25 Iranian entities. Enacted under Executive Order 13382, the sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the accused and prohibit them from engaging in U.S. financial or commercial activities.

The sanctions are the latest installment in a series the Treasury Department has imposed during President George W. Bush’s second term on entities allegedly assisting or engaged in the acquisition or sale of unconventional weapons, related materials, or missiles. At the same time, the Department of State, which spearheaded the drive to reinvigorate sanctions during Bush’s first term, has increasingly taken a back seat. The changes parallel a shift in the target of sanctions: over the course of the administration, sanctions have decreased against Chinese entities and increased against Iranian entities.

Current and former U.S. government officials familiar with Bush administration sanctions offer various explanations for the shifting trends, including personnel changes, bureaucratic battles, modified Chinese behavior, and the introduction of Executive Order 13382. Some of the officials contend the trends do not reflect conscious policy choices, but some former officials say that as time passed, the administration has moderated its sanctions approach on Chinese entities in a bid to win China’s cooperation in dealing with Iran and North Korea.

The Bush Administration Sanctions Record

Since taking office, the Bush administration has imposed sanctions related to unconventional weapons and missile proliferation 278 times against 197 foreign entities and one U.S. entity, a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Many foreign entities have been sanctioned multiple times, such as North Korea’s Changgwang Sinyong Corp., which has been penalized on nine separate occasions.

The number of sanctions invoked annually by the Bush administration has oscillated but averages about 35 times per year. In comparison, the Clinton administration averaged eight sanctions annually, according to June 4, 2003, testimony to the House International Relations Committee by John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

The dramatic rise in sanctions under the Bush administration compared to its predecessor was no coincidence but stemmed from a concerted push by Bolton, who held his undersecretary post for Bush’s first term, and other administration officials, several of whom had been Republican congressional staffers who were strong proponents of sanctions. They saw sanctions as a useful tool to punish and stigmatize proliferators and criticized the Clinton administration for not utilizing them more. Top Clinton administration officials often saw sanctions as too confrontational, potentially damaging to bilateral relations, and not always constructive in getting undesirable behavior changed. Instead, the Clinton administration tended to rely more on demarches, which are formal diplomatic notes, to inform foreign governments of activities that it wanted ceased. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Bolton indicated soon after he became undersecretary in May 2001 that he wanted to “go after sellers and sanction harshly,” a former U.S. government official told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 19 interview. Another former official in an interview the same day said, “Bolton was big on sanctions.”

Bolton encouraged the bureaus reporting to him to scour intelligence information for activities that mandated sanctions. Christopher Ford, who left government in September after serving as the U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, e-mailed Arms Control Today Sept. 19 that Bolton’s hard-driving approach on sanctions stemmed from his interest in both curbing proliferation and fulfilling statutory requirements that he and others alleged the Clinton administration had shirked or had been too lax in implementing.

A Tale of Two Terms

Bolton’s eagerness to employ sanctions during the Bush administration’s first term produced a large jump in penalties, particularly on Chinese entities. Sixty-two of the 108 sanctions (57 percent) levied in that span by the State Department involved Chinese entities.

Although the sanctions did not identify who was receiving the goods, general speculation centered on Iranian importers, given that many of the sanctions stemmed from the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 and the Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act of 1992. Those laws focused more on punishing exporters than importers. Only two Iranian entities were sanctioned during the administration’s first four years.

Bush in March 2005 nominated Bolton to serve as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. After a grueling five-month process during which lawmakers refused to confirm him to the post, the president gave Bolton a recess appointment, which ended in 2006. (See ACT, January/February 2007; September 2005.)

During its second term, the Bush administration has sanctioned 170 entities, 62 more than during its first term. But 106 of the sanctions emanated from the Treasury Department, which was empowered in June 2005 to take a more active role in proliferation sanctions when the president issued Executive Order 13382. (See ACT, September 2005.) That order authorized the department, working with other government agencies, to block the U.S. assets of entities judged to be engaged in or assisting proliferation, as well as the U.S. assets of foreign banks that do not follow the U.S. lead.

The State Department levied the other 64 second-term sanctions, 44 less than during Bolton’s tenure as undersecretary. A U.S. official, however, told Arms Control Today Sept. 18 that the State Department was on the verge of imposing several more sanctions.

The administration’s sanctions also differed between the first and second terms in their targets. Iranian entities accounted for 96 of the 170 second-term sanctions, or 56 percent. On the other hand, Chinese entities in the same period were slapped with 16 sanctions, a quarter of the number in the administration’s first term.

Explaining the Shifts

All the current and past officials interviewed by Arms Control Today agreed that Bolton’s departure from the State Department in 2005 influenced to some degree the drop-off in sanctions it issued. Most also noted that his successors, Robert Joseph and John Rood, view sanctions as important but of lower priority than other goals.

Ford observed that Bolton seemed to have a “taste and flair for effective bureaucratic infighting,” helping ensure not only that the bureaus reporting to him followed his intent to rigorously apply sanctions laws, but also in outmaneuvering other State Department bureaus that worried such penalties might jeopardize relations with the government whose entities might be sanctioned. For instance, Lawrence Wilkerson, an aide to first-term Secretary of State Colin Powell and no fan of Bolton, told Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff on May 6, 2005, that the East Asia and Pacific Bureau “didn’t like” the many sanctions against China when the United States was “trying to negotiate with North Korea and have China be a very meaningful player in that negotiation.” Ford and Carolyn Leddy, who worked at the State Department before becoming director for counterproliferation strategy on the National Security Council (NSC) from July 2006 to November 2007, suggested that, with Bolton’s absence, the State Department bureaus skeptical of sanctions prevailed more frequently in intradepartmental struggles.

As the State Department’s focus on sanctions waned after Bolton, the Treasury Department’s proliferation sanction activities expanded through Executive Order 13382. The allure of “financial sanctions” received a boost in the eyes of many administration officials when the Treasury Department in September 2005 succeeded in getting a Macau-based bank, Banco Delta Asia, to freeze some North Korean accounts after designating the bank a “money laundering concern.” (See ACT, April 2006.)

Although North Korea eventually succeeded in getting the funds released, some foreign banking institutions in the interim had curtailed their activities with North Korea and Banco Delta Asia. That ripple effect pleasantly surprised Bush administration officials because the sanctions imposed through the State Department typically had not been replicated abroad. Sanctions triggered by the laws administered by the State Department generally prohibit the accused from U.S. trade or aid. Sanctions critics note that such penalties are often symbolic because most entities sanctioned generally do not trade with or receive aid from the United States in the first place.

Leddy stated in a Sept. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “when I was at the NSC, Treasury certainly was the go-to department to get anything done.” She added that Stuart Levey, the undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, and his staff have “a real dedication and belief in the power of these financial tools.”

Some of the current and past officials also speculated that the Treasury Department’s growing role in sanctions could reflect that Executive Order 13382 sanctions are procedurally and bureaucratically easier to invoke than the laws that the State Department implements. Sanctions under the executive order require a determination by the Treasury Department or other agencies that an entity is engaged in or assisting proliferation, while the State Department must be satisfied that its determinations meet the criteria and intent of laws passed by Congress. The current official interviewed Sept. 18 also said that executive order determinations appear less reliant on secret intelligence, making it more feasible to levy sanctions without alerting proliferators to possible U.S. intelligence sources or methods.

The executive order also enables the U.S. government to go after the buyers or recipients of alleged proliferation transactions more than previous laws, which were focused on punishing the sellers. Many of the individuals interviewed by Arms Control Today saw this as a factor in the rise of sanctions on Iranian entities, in addition to the greater international scrutiny on Iran after the exposure of its clandestine nuclear activities in 2002.
One former State Department official e-mailed Arms Control Today Sept. 22 that the rise in Iranian sanctions was “in essence a decision to begin sanctioning as a political signaling mechanism, both to tell Iran that we knew what was up…[and] to signal to third parties that [the sanctioned entities] were bad news and that [the third parties] were vulnerable if they traded with the Iranian front companies.”

Less agreement existed among the current and former officials on why sanctions on Chinese entities have decreased. Almost all said that China’s proliferation record improved, but some suggested that the Bush administration also has become more lenient in sanctioning Chinese entities.

In May 20 testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Patricia McNerney, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, gave a mixed assessment of Chinese proliferation. She charged that “a number of Chinese entities continue to supply items and technologies useful in weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, and advanced conventional weapons to regimes of concern.” At the same time, she said some oft-sanctioned Chinese entities, namely NORINCO and the China Great Wall Industry Co., have taken steps to prevent “inadvertent transactions” that could contribute to proliferation. A month later, the Treasury Department lifted Executive Order 13382 sanctions against the latter company, stating that it had “implemented a rigorous and thorough compliance program to prevent future dealings with Iran.”

Still, two of the former U.S. officials contend that Chinese behavior had not improved so much to justify a falloff in sanctions. Instead, one of them argued Sept. 19 that the administration in its latter years has sought to “make nice with the Chinese” and “avoid antagonizing the Chinese because of the desire for support on North Korea and Iran.” The other former official concurred, telling Arms Control Today Sept. 20 that there had been “some effort to soften [sanctions] to win Chinese support” in negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear programs. The first official condemned the perceived change in approach as “not only false, but foolish.”

Matthew Levitt, who served from 2005 to 2007 as the deputy assistant secretary of treasury for intelligence and analysis, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the numbers of sanctions imposed on the entities of one country or another. He e-mailed Arms Control Today Sept. 17 that “there are real world issues that drive these decisions and in many cases decisions are taken not to take [sanctions] but another kind of action.”

Do Sanctions Matter?

Almost all the officials interviewed by Arms Control Today positively assessed the consequences of the Bush administration’s increased use of sanctions compared with that of its predecessor. Ford recalled that although he saw a considerable amount of incoming information on “problematic transfers by Chinese entities” when he arrived in 2003 at the State Department, the flow of reporting on such matters diminished over time, suggesting the sanctions were working. He conceded that some of the change might have been due to Chinese entities getting better at “concealing” their activities, but he maintained that U.S. sanctions certainly played a role in the decrease.

Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, said in June 26, 2007, remarks at a Washington conference that U.S. sanctions combined with various UN Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea “have prompted many businesses and institutions around the world to scale down or terminate completely their dealing with proliferators.” Similarly, in a Sept. 10 briefing on the imposition of additional sanctions under Executive Order 13382, Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters that the sanctions “are having an impact” but added that “much of what we know is based on intelligence that we can’t really discuss in an open briefing.” The Treasury Department has not released any totals for the amount of assets frozen under Executive Order 13382.

In a December 2007 report on sanctions against Iran, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for Congress, concluded it was difficult to judge sanction results. The GAO noted that several big European banks had followed the U.S. sanctions lead in curbing business with certain Iranian entities, but the agency also stated “the extent of [sanctions] impacts is difficult to determine.” The agency added that the Treasury Department’s assessment that Iran continues to pursue nuclear and missile capabilities “reinforces our finding that the overall impact of sanctions is unclear.”

Corrected online November 4, 2008. See explanation.

In September, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed proliferation sanctions on 25 Iranian entities. Enacted under Executive Order 13382, the sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the accused and prohibit them from engaging in U.S. financial or commercial activities.

The sanctions are the latest installment in a series the Treasury Department has imposed during President George W. Bush’s second term on entities allegedly assisting or engaged in the acquisition or sale of unconventional weapons, related materials, or missiles. At the same time, the Department of State, which spearheaded the drive to reinvigorate sanctions during Bush’s first term, has increasingly taken a back seat. The changes parallel a shift in the target of sanctions: over the course of the administration, sanctions have decreased against Chinese entities and increased against Iranian entities. (Continue)

Chinese Arms Shipment Sparks Outrage

Jeff Abramson and Jessica Lasky-Fink

In April, South African dockworkers refused to unload a Chinese cargo ship carrying more than 70 tons of small arms destined for Zimbabwe. The refusal set off international reactions that led to the recall of the shipment and calls for stronger international arms trade measures, such as a global arms trade treaty.

The shipment, including three million rounds of ammunition for AK47s and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades, was meant to be unloaded at Durban, South Africa, and transported overland to land-locked Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has experienced increasing political strife since March parliamentary and presidential elections in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change claimed victory over the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. In light of escalating tensions in Zimbabwe, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) declared that its port members would not unload the ship's cargo for fear that the weapons would contribute to internal repression. SATAWU instead called for the ship to return to China with the arms onboard and for a peaceful solution to be sought to the political instability in Zimbabwe.

SATAWU is affiliated with the International Transport Workers Federation, which expressed full support for the union's actions and continued to track the ship's movements. After being rebuffed from South Africa, the ship sailed to and docked in Angola where it only unloaded construction materials, according to transport union officials.

Initially, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson defended the shipment, saying it was part of normal trade between two sovereign countries. The ZANU-PF also defended their right to buy weapons from any legal source. China announced April 24 that because it could not deliver the arms shipment, the Chinese company responsible for the ship was recalling its vessel.

International Reaction

The incident generated international outcry and raised further questions about the export of arms to countries with dubious democracy records or that are engaged in civil war.

Zambia, which currently chairs the Southern African Development Community (SADC), urged regional states to prohibit the ship from entering their waters. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa voiced his belief April 21 that the "Chinese can play a very useful role in Zimbabwe without the use of arms."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown went a step further April 23 and called for a worldwide arms embargo on Zimbabwe. The next day, U.S. ambassadors and other Department of State officials called the idea a "good one" that "[t]he United States will consider seriously." On April 29, EU foreign ministers followed with their own appeal to China, African nations, and others to ban the supply or sale of arms and related equipment that could exacerbate political tensions in Zimbabwe.

The UN Security Council met at the end of April to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe but failed to agree on an appropriate course of action. Any resolution regarding Zimbabwe must be agreed on by all five permanent members of the Security Council, including China, which is one of Zimbabwe's main trade partners and allies.

Although there is no UN-sponsored arms embargo on Zimbabwe, the 27-member European Union has unilaterally implemented a sanctions regime on the Mugabe government. The EU first imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002 in response to the perceived breakdown of the rule of law and human rights violations under the rule of ZANU-PF. The measures adopted in 2002 have since been renewed and include an embargo on the sale of arms to Zimbabwe and the freezing of personal assets of and travel restrictions on senior members of government and other high-ranking officials.

In an op-ed published in early May, South African Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu explicitly linked the incident with a call for a global arms trade treaty now under discussion. He wrote that "[a]t the moment the UN is working on an arms trade treaty that could stop weapons transfers such as this one to Zimbabwe. If a strong treaty eventually becomes law, then an arms exporter will have to block the sale if there is evidence the weapons are likely to be used to commit serious violations of human rights law."

As part of a UN-sponsored process, a group of government experts from 28 countries are conducting a study of the "feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms." (See ACT, March 2008.) That group has met twice, with a final meeting to take place July 28-Aug. 8.

It is unclear whether a treaty that might eventually result from the process would have stopped the shipment to Zimbabwe. According to a U.S. official who spoke with Arms Control Today May 22, a future arms trade treaty's reporting mechanism will probably call for notification after a transfer rather than prior to it. As such, the requirements may resemble the now voluntary UN Register of Conventional Arms, to which about 120 countries currently file a report. (See ACT, September and November 2007.)

The U.S. official also suggested that states participating in an arms trade treaty are unlikely to place absolute limits on their arms transfer decisions. Instead, eventual states-parties would more likely commit to taking certain factors into consideration when making arms trade decisions, but ultimately choose to engage in trade based on national prerogatives. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Whether or not an arms trade treaty emerges from the incident, the U.S. official praised the outcome of the standoff: "It is a positive development that neighbors got involved to take action. It goes to the old adage that talk is cheap, action is dear."

In April, South African dockworkers refused to unload a Chinese cargo ship carrying more than 70 tons of small arms destined for Zimbabwe. The refusal set off international reactions that led to the recall of the shipment and calls for stronger international arms trade measures, such as a global arms trade treaty.

The shipment, including three million rounds of ammunition for AK47s and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades, was meant to be unloaded at Durban, South Africa, and transported overland to land-locked Zimbabwe. (Continue)

Hotline to Link U.S.-Chinese Militaries

Jeremy Patterson

The Department of Defense has negotiated a landmark new communications hotline between the U.S. military and the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, while it continues to keep a watchful eye on China’s growing military capabilities.

Defense Department officials announced Feb. 29 that they had formally agreed to implement the long-discussed Defense Telephone Link (DTL) with China. The agreement comes after years of talks between the two sides. Hotline talks were given a boost last September when President George W. Bush raised the issue directly with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The link was discussed again when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited China in November and at an annual bilateral meeting of undersecretary-level defense representatives in Washington in December.

The formal agreement was reached in Shanghai during a meeting of representatives at the deputy assistant secretary level. In a statement to Arms Control Today March 17, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder said that “the agreement will allow us to move forward on installing the actual equipment in the next few weeks. We anticipate the DTL will become operational this month.” A Chinese spokesperson refused to commit to a specific date when asked at a March 4 press conference, although he did express hopes that the new connection would “enhance political mutual trust, exchanges, and cooperation.”

At the Shanghai talks, the United States and China also agreed to move forward with their nuclear strategy and policy dialogue. In March 3 remarks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Sedney, who negotiated the final hotline agreement, said “we do have a process in place now. This process was proposed by the PLA [Chinese military], and the first part of that will be a discussion between Chinese military officers and Chinese military academics and counterparts here in the U.S. And we expect that to happen in the next month or so… maybe two months.”

The hotline and nuclear strategy talks are part of a multiyear effort to enhance openness in the troubled relationship between the two military establishments. The Defense Department is eager to learn more about the Chinese military, including better understanding Beijing’s military philosophy, and command and control structures.

Report on Chinese Military Power

The Defense Department’s 2008 Military Power of China report, released March 3, also underscores Washington’s continuing uncertainty about Chinese procedures and intentions. The annual report asserts that the “lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.”

This year’s report notes several new developments in China’s nuclear capabilities, including the deployment of fewer than 10 each of the new solid-fueled, road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs. These missiles’ enhanced mobility and quicker launch times make them less vulnerable than the older, liquid-fueled CSS-3 and CSS-4 missiles that are being phased out. The liquid-fueled missiles must be held in position and fueled before they can be launched, a process that takes several hours during which they are vulnerable to disarming strikes. The report asserts that the enhanced mobility enabled by the new missiles will create new command and control challenges for the Chinese leadership.

The report says that China continues to deploy 20 CSS-4 ICBMs. The DF-31A and CSS-4 are the only Chinese ICBMs capable of targeting the continental United States. In contrast, the United States maintains approximately 450 ICBMs and 430 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) that can strike the Chinese mainland.

The Pentagon also reports a substantial increase in CSS-5 deployments. The CSS-5 is a shorter-range, solid-fueled, road-mobile missile for regional use and is expected to fully replace the aging CSS-2 by 2010. CSS-5 deployment has increased from 40-50 missiles with 34-38 launchers last year to 60-80 missiles with 60 launchers this year. Because the report notes that China is preparing a conventionally armed version of the CSS-5, however, it is possible that some of these do not have nuclear missions.

The report also indicates that China is researching technologies for its ballistic missile forces that would counter potential ballistic missile defenses, such as those being developed by the United States. (See ACT, November 2007 .) These include maneuverable re-entry vehicles, multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and anti-satellite weapons.

China also appears to be improving its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) capabilities. The report indicated that one JIN-class (Type 094) SSBN may soon enter service, although publicly available satellite imagery suggests the existence of at least two of the new submarines.

The report estimates that up to five JIN-class submarines may be deployed by 2010, reflecting for the first time a December 2006 estimate by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence. The JIN-class submarine will carry the JL-2 SLBM, which the Pentagon expects will reach initial operational capability by 2010.

China has built only one of its previous-generation XIA-class SSBNs equipped with JL-1 SLBMs. The 2008 report now lists the operational status of that submarine as “questionable.”

The report indicates that China has also acquired an uncertain number of cruise missiles. It estimates that China now has 50 to 250 indigenously produced DH-10s. By 2010 the report says new air- and ground-launched cruise missiles “could perform nuclear missions.”

Although new Chinese budgetary figures were not available at the time of the report’s publication, the Pentagon’s report continues to criticize China’s alleged underreporting of its military spending. Historically, the Defense Department has estimated that China’s actual military spending is roughly two to three times the official number reported by the Chinese. China released its claimed 2008 military spending March 4, the day after the Pentagon released its report. China said it would spend $59 billion on its military in 2008, a 17.6 percent increase over the 2007 figure. In contrast, the U.S. military budget in fiscal year 2008, which ends Sept. 30, is $481.4 billion, not including funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Department of Defense has negotiated a landmark new communications hotline between the U.S. military and the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, while it continues to keep a watchful eye on China’s growing military capabilities.

Defense Department officials announced Feb. 29 that they had formally agreed to implement the long-discussed Defense Telephone Link (DTL) with China. The agreement comes after years of talks between the two sides. Hotline talks were given a boost last September when President George W. Bush raised the issue directly with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The link was discussed again when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited China in November and at an annual bilateral meeting of undersecretary-level defense representatives in Washington in December. (Continue)

Taiwan Buys U.S. Arms; U.S. Eyes China

Wade Boese

Taiwan’s legislature recently approved buying a dozen anti-submarine planes, a modest portion of an original $18 billion U.S. arms package offered six years ago. The purchase comes amid persistent U.S. questions about China’s military modernization and a new move to prevent American technology from aiding that drive.

Soon after taking office, President George W. Bush authorized selling Taiwan an array of weapon systems, including destroyers, diesel-electric attack submarines, and aircraft. (See ACT, May 2001.) Later, the United States added short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Taiwan agreed to acquire four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, the final two of which were delivered last September. The rest of the package, however, became entangled in politics.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has urged making the deals, but his Democratic Progressive Party does not control the legislature, the Legislative Yuan. Led by the Nationalist Party, the majority coalition in the Legislative Yuan has blocked funding for the weapons, arguing that they are too expensive and too provocative to China, which opposes foreign arms sales to the island. Beijing asserts Taiwan is a renegade province that should be under the mainland’s control and does not rule out using force to accomplish that objective.

On June 15, the Legislative Yuan approved buying 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and upgrades to its current anti-missile systems, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2. The parliament declined to seek newer PAC-3 batteries. Lawmakers also endorsed further study of the submarine option.

The Legislative Yuan’s shift has been attributed to Nationalist Party maneuvering to increase the appeal of its candidate in the presidential election next March. Speculation also exists that the recent move was orchestrated to ease a separate requested purchase of 66 U.S. F-16 fighter jets. Washington has resisted moving ahead on the proposal, insisting that Taiwan first complete the 2001 offer.

U.S. officials have repeatedly rebuked Taiwan for not acting on the package. In a May 3 press conference, Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, noted that “Taiwan’s friends” question whether Taipei is “serious about maintaining a credible defense.” The institute serves as the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

Although Taiwan has essentially forgone major arms purchases the past several years, China has been working to improve its armed forces. The Pentagon noted May 25 in the latest edition of its annual report Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, the “balance of forces [is] continuing to shift in the mainland’s favor.”

The report highlights China’s 2006 receipt from Russia of the last of four Sovremenny-class destroyers and a final pair of eight Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines. Beijing also boosted its conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan by at least 100 to approximately 900.

On the strategic side, the Pentagon upgraded the status of China’s road-mobile, solid-fuel DF-31 missile, which has an estimated range of some 7,000 kilometers, from developmental to “initial threat availability.” A Pentagon official told reporters May 25 that the phrase meant that the missile “could be employed in actual military operations.”

A longer-range variant, the DF-31A, which could target all of the United States, was still assessed as “developmental.” The Pentagon suggested that missile might become operational as early as this year, similar to China’s new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2.

These newer missiles have been in development for some time. The 2002 edition of the Pentagon report estimated that they would become available around mid- to late decade. All told, China’s current force of ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States remains at approximately 20—no change since the Pentagon issued its first annual report in 2000.

Chinese leaders, according to the report, see space and counter-space capabilities as signs of prestige and power similar to nuclear weapons. China’s Jan. 11 destruction of an aging satellite in orbit (see ACT, March 2007 ) revealed only one element of what the Pentagon describes as a “multi-dimensional program” to “deny others access to outer space.”

China is funding its arms purchases, missile developments, and space capabilities with a growing military budget. In March, Beijing announced a nearly 18 percent spending increase from last year, to approximately $45 billion. The Pentagon, which in February asked Congress for $623 billion for one year, says China’s actual military budget could be as high as $125 billion.

China rails at such allegations. On May 28, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu blasted the Pentagon report as spreading the “myth of the China threat by exaggerating China’s military strength and expenses out of ulterior motives.” Qin Gang, another ministry spokesperson, defended China’s military modernization June 21 as “moderate and reasonable.”

Although the annual Pentagon report focuses on China’s capabilities, Washington says what it is really interested in and unclear about is Chinese intentions. “We wish that there were greater transparency, that [the Chinese] would talk more about what their intentions are [and] what their strategies are,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said May 24.

Possible conflicts with Taiwan are the near-term military focus of China, the report concludes. Yet, it also assesses that China is creating a base for pursuing “broader regional and global objectives.”

China’s growing capabilities has caught the attention of some U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, warned at a June 13 panel hearing that China has “stepped into the superpower shoes that had been vacated by the Soviet Union with respect to military power.” But Undersecretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Richard Lawless told the panel that Beijing “is not necessarily interested in the ability to stand toe-to-toe and go into a major conflict with the United States.”

Greater openness on China’s part could diminish the possibility of future conflict, U.S. officials say. Lawless noted that, without Chinese transparency, the United States is “put in the position of having to assume the most dangerous intent a capability offers.”

U.S. officials contend China is opening up slightly but not enough, particularly in the nuclear realm. Beijing has begged off recent U.S. invitations to engage in a nuclear policy dialogue, but Gates and other U.S. officials are strongly promoting the offer. “That kind of dialogue, whether or not it involves specific proposals for arms control or anything else, I think, is immensely valuable,” Gates said June 2.

The two governments are expected to begin exploring establishment of a military hotline this September. Still, Lawless cautioned that “there’s a lot left to finalize.”

Although seeking to improve relations with China, the United States is wary of China’s military rise. In its 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon observed that China “has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages.”

Aiming to prevent U.S. companies from abetting such developments, the Department of Commerce June 15 announced new rules on exporting dual-use goods to China. Dual-use items have civilian and military applications.

The recent measures expand the list of items that require U.S. companies to obtain a license when shipping to known military end uses in China. These 20 product categories include some high-performance computers, lasers, aircraft, aero-gas turbine engines, and machine tools.

At the same time, the Commerce Department is seeking to reward Chinese entities with records of not re-exporting or diverting imports to unauthorized purposes. Such importers will be eligible to become “validated end users” that will be exempted from getting licenses for some dual-use goods. In addition, the threshold for obtaining licenses for some dual-use items that are not destined for military uses will be increased from $5,000 to $50,000.

In a June 15 press statement, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez described the new rules as a “common-sense approach” that will facilitate U.S. exports to “pre-screened civilian customers” while denying goods that “would contribute to China’s military.”


Taiwan’s legislature recently approved buying a dozen anti-submarine planes, a modest portion of an original $18 billion U.S. arms package offered six years ago. The purchase comes amid persistent U.S. questions about China’s military modernization and a new move to prevent American technology from aiding that drive.

Soon after taking office, President George W. Bush authorized selling Taiwan an array of weapon systems, including destroyers, diesel-electric attack submarines, and aircraft. (See ACT, May 2001.) Later, the United States added short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Taiwan agreed to acquire four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, the final two of which were delivered last September. The rest of the package, however, became entangled in politics. (Continue)

Nuclear Minimalism

The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age. By Jeffrey G. Lewis, MIT Press, March 2007, 200pp

Brad Roberts

China has always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in nuclear weapons issues, and nuclear issues have always been something of a footnote for the U.S. expert community interested in China. The result is a gap in our understanding of the past, present, and future of China’s nuclear forces. Since the publication two decades ago of the path-breaking historical review China Builds the Bomb by John Lewis and Xue Litae, there has been only a trickle of new historical and analytical material. This relative paucity of analysis contrasts sharply with the importance of the issues at stake. The choices China makes about its nuclear future will have wide-ranging implications in Asia and beyond, as will the choices others make about their nuclear relationship with China.

Jeffrey Lewis’s new book, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age, is thus an important addition on a significant topic. It is based on detailed analysis and fieldwork conducted for a doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland. Lewis observes that China’s search for security in the nuclear age has been poorly understood by outsiders, an observation validated every time an American speaks about China as “that country with 20 nuclear weapons” (20 is the number of warheads understood to be deliverable on the United States by long-range missiles, whereas the actual number of nuclear warheads in China’s possession is larger by a factor of 10 or more—a topic about which there is great uncertainty and no Chinese transparency).

Accordingly, Lewis begins with a survey of the evolution of China’s nuclear forces over the last four decades and the key strategic concepts that have informed its force planning. He then offers two case studies exploring the thinking of China’s leadership on the requirements of strategic stability: China’s participation in the Conference on Disarmament and its efforts there to expand prohibitions on the military uses of outer space. He also conjectures about the impact of developments in U.S. nuclear policy and posture on future Chinese force planning. The result is part history and part polemic. Its ultimate value rests on the validity of three core propositions Lewis puts forward.

The first is that China developed nuclear forces with a commitment to “the minimum means of reprisal.” Lewis begins his study with a quotation from Marshal Nie Rongzhen, a founding father of China’s nuclear program: “My attitude was clear throughout. For more than a century, imperialists had bullied, humiliated, and oppressed China. To put an end to this situation, we had to develop sophisticated weapons such as the guided missile and the atomic bomb, so that we would have the minimum means of reprisal if attacked by the imperialists with nuclear weapons.” Lewis goes on to demonstrate the ways in which this commitment to minimalism informed the development of China’s military doctrine, force structure, and national nuclear policy.

Of course, this first proposition is not controversial. Lewis’s unique contribution is to plumb the case studies to lend credence to the argument that such minimalism is deeply ingrained. He brings home the important point that China’s experts do not equate strategic stability with quantitative parity. In their view, the strategic situation is stable when China can resist attempted coercion by outside powers with nuclear weapons, an ability that rests directly on a capacity for limited but certain retaliation for any actual nuclear attack on China. Numbers do not matter, they argue, so long as the number of weapons that might penetrate to an attacker in retaliation is higher than zero.

Lewis’s second core proposition is that China’s force planners continue to be guided by this principle. This argument is more contentious, and his case in support of it is less persuasive. Lewis collects and recounts all of the information in common usage among the expert community about the numbers and types of deployed nuclear forces. China, he reports, has approximately 80 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, with perhaps 30 on ICBMs (18 on DF-5s and 12 on DF-4s) and another 44 associated with medium-range ballistic missiles (the DF-3 and DF-21). He reports that China has no tactical weapons. He notes also China’s deployment of a large number of shorter-range missiles that are not understood to be intended for nuclear delivery. He makes brief mention of the fact that China tried to develop both air and sea legs of its nuclear triad but has allowed the former to fall into disrepair while struggling to keep even a single nuclear missile submarine functioning.

Lewis sees no reason to think that Chinese force planners intend to do anything other than preserve these existing capabilities, albeit with more-modern technologies over time. Indeed, although a few caveats are sprinkled through this analysis, his bottom lines are fairly stark. He states, “China has not yet revised the deployment pattern of its strategic forces, nor does it need to…. China will continue to maintain a modest retaliatory capability.” China “has not taken even the rudimentary steps to give its leaders the option of expanding their arsenal beyond current modernization plans.” He characterizes China’s modernization of these forces as “proposed” and asserts that China prefers the development of new systems to the deployment of them. He is dismissive of predictions by the U.S. intelligence community of anticipated growth in these nuclear forces, a case that is strengthened by the record of misprediction that he rightly notes.

These days it is difficult to read assessments such as these without recalling the findings of the Silberman-Robb Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Although focused originally on the problem of pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the commission came to a broad conclusion about WMD intelligence more generally: “we still know disturbingly little.” This obliges us to ask here, How good is the evidence? How probing is the analysis?

In this reader’s view, the evidence is more mixed than Lewis depicts it. His work says very little about the dramatically increased flow over the last decade of money and political commitment to the Second Artillery. This is the part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for China’s strategic missile forces, nuclear and otherwise, and it has gained higher prominence in Chinese defense planning and decision-making over the last decade. Its doctrine has been thoroughly updated, reflecting enhanced reliance on missile warfare by the PLA more generally. There is only one reference to the buildup of short-range missiles across the strait from Taiwan, which over the last decade has put roughly 100 new missiles into the field each year.

Although these short-range missiles are not believed to be nuclear tipped, the dramatic buildup is illustrative of a significant change in the way the PLA thinks about the wartime role of the Second Artillery. There has also been a considerable flow of military literature reflecting sustained recent effort to think nuclear policy and strategy issues through. Lewis only briefly describes a long-running Chinese debate about the continued credibility of a no-first-use policy. This is the pledge, in place since the founding of China’s nuclear capability, not to be the party in a conflict that initiates the use of nuclear weapons.

China’s December 2006 Defense White Paper helps to bring home just how much is changing in the PLA. It offers a vision of dramatic military transformation for all of the major elements of the PLA. It describes an overall strategy aimed at creating a “solid foundation” of military capabilities by 2010, “major progress” by 2020, and a fully modern military by 2050. What might this imply for the future of China’s nuclear force? The White Paper gives only a few hints in this regard. It reports that the Second Artillery “is quickening its steps…to increase its capabilities of land-based nuclear counter-strikes” and promises strengthened naval nuclear counterstrike capabilities.

The strongest case for the argument that something else may be afoot is made by Lewis himself: developments in the U.S. strategic posture seem to be creating major pressure on China to adapt its force structure in significant ways. As the United States moves toward stronger missile defenses, more-effective non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities, and enhanced intelligence and surveillance systems, China will have to adjust its posture in order to ensure that it remains effective and sufficient in the face of possible U.S. pre-emptive attack. This will mean a larger force and also a force that is more capable and ready. At the very least, China seems headed toward the deployment of a new sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent plus a new land-based leg consisting of at least two new road-mobile missiles.

Chinese military experts also talk increasingly frequently about a deployment of five to seven warheads atop the existing silo-based missiles as a counter to U.S. missile defense. Steps such as these could result in an increase from 20 to 100 or more nuclear weapons deployed by China capable of reaching the United States.

Perhaps these quantitative and qualitative improvements are in the realm of what Lewis sees as consistent with “current modernization plans.” Many others would interpret a dramatic increase in the number of deployed weapons capable of striking the United States as a “fundamental revision of deployment patterns.” The truth may be a bit of both. The buildup is seen by many in China as an effort to restore the status quo ante, meaning the viability of a deterrent put at risk by improving U.S. defensive and offensive capabilities. Lewis argues that the Bush administration’s envisioned “new triad” does not yet exist in any tangible form and thus that China is not yet compelled to respond to it. China’s experts are more impressed by what they see as progress by the United States in deploying initial missile defense capabilities, new non-nuclear strike capabilities, and improved surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Lewis does note that, “within China, of course, voices for much larger deployments do exist.” Without elaboration or substantiation, however, he goes on to argue that “these voices seem unlikely to exert much influence over the next decade given the nature of the Chinese political system.” At another point, he offers the surprising proposition that “changes in the U.S. force posture will probably not be the decisive factor affecting the future direction of China’s nuclear forces,” also without elaboration.

In short, the evidence about the state of China’s current nuclear force modernization plans is mixed. From this author’s perspective, it is not strong enough to lead to confident predictions of any kind. Lewis’s analysis would have been stronger had he at least sketched out and tested some of the alternative interpretations that the available data suggest.

Lewis’s third core proposition is that future Chinese restraint in the posturing of its nuclear force requires a promise of restraint by the United States in the form of an explicit acceptance of mutual vulnerability as the basis of strategic stability. In other words, so long as the United States chooses not to deploy capabilities that undermine China’s deterrent, China will not have to undertake any of that “proposed” modernization.

The notion that Chinese restraint is contingent on U.S. restraint strikes me as sound. The notion that stability requires some mutual understanding of the mutual, reciprocal nature of restraint also strikes me as sound, although it does strike some as appeasement, as a willingness to acquiesce to the competitive instincts of a rising power.

There are two more fundamental problems with this proposition. One is that Washington cannot promise Beijing not to develop the U.S. strategic posture in ways that damages China’s perceptions of the credibility of its deterrent. The question is how much damage and how much of it is intentional. The United States is motivated to develop a strategic posture that insulates it from the attempts by “rogue states” to create relationships of mutual vulnerability, and this posture will also affect U.S.-China strategic relations. A limited missile defense that is effective against a small North Korean nuclear missile force will have some effectiveness against the small nuclear missile force of its neighbor. Analogous arguments can be made about the impact of improved strategic strike capabilities encompassing better and more-prompt non-nuclear options.

Thus, even in the absence of a U.S. intention to challenge the Chinese deterrent, China must take steps to preserve the viability of its deterrent. The issue is not how to avoid this. Instead, the issue is how to manage this. How can the two countries modernize their capabilities and transform them for new challenges without an intensification of competition and a harmful intrusion of nuclear issues into the political relationship?

The other problem is with Lewis’s expectation that the United States can make a promise to China that it accepts a relationship of mutual vulnerability. As it turns out, this is much easier said than done. Lewis’s view seems to be that the Bush administration has it all wrong about China, and he calls for a repudiation of the ideas in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as the shortest route to the goal he seeks. He attacks the NPR with gusto and along the way makes claims that simply are not supported by his evidence. “China is prominently featured in the 2001 NPR,” he asserts, although it apparently rated only a single mention in what was the Bush administration’s first effort to move from military planning against specific threats to military planning aimed at bringing into being a suite of capabilities suited to a broad range of plausible contingencies.

He argues further that “China’s strategic forces are increasingly supplanting Russia’s arsenal as the primary benchmark for determining the size and capabilities of U.S. forces,” a bit of argument that seems to miss the relevance of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which capped the size of U.S. and Russian operationally deployed strategic warheads at 1,700-2,200 each in 2012. He adds that “assumptions about the configuration and purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal determine not just the overall U.S. force posture but also the mix of capabilities identified in the 2001 NPR,” a case that is even more difficult to support.

Lewis is setting up an argument that all of this wrong thinking should be swept aside, thus enabling a return to a view of the strategic landscape that would make possible the promise he deems central to stability. Alas, it is not that simple. The Clinton administration was no more willing than this Bush administration to offer China such a promise. This decision was apparently taken after some serious internal discussion.

This points to an important theme left undeveloped in Lewis’s book: the underlying continuity, from China’s perspective, in the development of U.S. strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War. In the common Chinese view, the end of bipolarity increased U.S. freedom to maneuver, which it has exercised liberally by military and other means for nearly 20 years. Already in the late 1980s, the United States began to develop improved non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities. Already in the early 1990s, members of the George H.W. Bush administration and then the Clinton administration were discussing pre-emptive options at high levels and doing so publicly. Already in the mid-1990s, the United States was moving aggressively to create first theater and then national missile defenses.

Lewis might have done more to bring out the ambivalence evident over the last decade or so in the United States about offering China a promise of mutual vulnerability in the name of stability. It may well be the right call, but the ambivalence deserves some attention. It has something to do with profound uncertainty about what the rise of a powerful China weakly governed by an unaccountable one-party system might mean for the future security order. It also has something to do with a sense that stability is important, but after the Cold War, nuclear stability need not have a sacrosanct place in the hierarchy of security values.

Lewis rightly argues that a laissez-faire attitude toward this particular strategic relationship will not suffice. Avoidance of an intensification of strategic competition as China and the United States modernize and transform their strategic postures requires management. Lewis recommends a strategic stability dialogue, arguing that China has eagerly sought such a dialogue for at least a couple of decades. He would focus that dialogue on a pre-Bush arms control agenda encompassing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a fissile material cutoff treaty with verification measures, among other items, including a bilateral no-first-use pledge.

The recommendation for strategic dialogue has an obvious appeal, but alas, it is not particularly well developed. Lewis fails to mention two prior efforts at nuclear dialogue by the Clinton and Bush administrations that both faltered on an absence of Chinese transparency. He offers no commentary on the Bush administration’s separate effort to build a nuclear dialogue with China around the “responsible stakeholder” theme first articulated by then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Moreover, his book apparently was finalized before the April 2006 summit commitment by Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao to initiate a military-to-military dialogue on nuclear issues. A year later, at the time of this writing, the Chinese have yet to accept an invitation to schedule what was to be the first step in the dialogue process, a visit by the head of the Second Artillery to Strategic Command. This raises a basic question about the eagerness for strategic dialogue that Lewis imputes to China’s leaders.

Lewis has done us a service by helping to raise a debate about the future of China’s nuclear forces, the interaction of China and U.S. modernization/transformation efforts, and the desirability of a dialogue that effectively manages the relationship. His assessment of the problem strikes me as a bit lopsided, with its singular emphasis on the United States as the driver of instability and his convenient assumption that changes are not already afoot in the Chinese posture. His prescription strikes me as lacking an adequate understanding of China’s search for nuclear security and of America’s search. Yet, after a decade or two of U.S. debate about how to achieve the necessary and desirable strategic relationships with the “rogues” and Russia, it is time to have the debate Lewis invites about how to achieve the right U.S. nuclear relationship with China.

Brad Roberts is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He is co-author with Robert Manning and Ronald Montaperto of China, Nuclear Weapons, and Arms Control (2000).

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A Review of The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age by Jeffrey Lewis. (Continue)

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/.  

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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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