Commentary Magazine


Lost In Space

On January 11, China employed a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a communications satellite 537 miles above the earth. Hans Kristensen, a specialist on space warfare at the Federation of American Scientists, called the Chinese action a “major foreign-policy blunder.” China, he wrote, “has severely weakened its own status in the push for international limitations on military space activities.”

What could the Chinese have been thinking? The New York Times editorial page had an answer (link requires subscription). Citing unnamed experts, it suggested “that China’s latest test is intended to prod the United States to join serious negotiations” to limit anti-satellite warfare.

Perhaps. But perhaps this view is nonsense. Perhaps the Chinese have very good reasons for developing an anti-satellite warfare capability, independently of whether the U.S. participates in arms-control talks or not.

The U.S. currently enjoys immense military superiority over China. Why would it be surprising for the Chinese military to seek a relatively low-cost way to offset American advantages? Investing in anti-satellite warfare–up until January 11, only Russia and the U.S. had workable systems in this arena–would be a quite logical direction in which to proceed.

Michael Pillsbury, a leading analyst of Chinese military affairs, has just produced a comprehensive study of what Chinese military thinkers–he cites some thirty different open-source studies–are saying about such matters.

Of the thirty Chinese proposals, one set would be particularly challenging to US military vulnerabilities in a crisis. In each of their books, Chinese Colonels Li, Jia, and Yuan all advocated covert deployment of a sophisticated anti-satellite weapon system to be used against United States in a surprise manner without warning. Even a small-scale anti-satellite attack in a crisis against 50 US satellites [assuming a mix of targeted military-reconnaissance satellites, navigation satellites, and communication satellites] could have a catastrophic effect not only on U.S. military forces, but on the US civilian economy.

A Chinese effort to acquire a “capacity to disable American intelligence, communications, and navigation satellites and to disrupt U.S. information systems, both in the region and beyond” is what Aaron Friedberg warned us about in a prescient and path-breaking article in Commentary seven years ago.

Monopoly is the American national game of strategy. It was invented in the early 1930’s and takes five minutes to master. Here are the rules.

Go is the Chinese national game of strategy. It was invented more than 2,500 years ago and takes a lifetime to master. Here are the rules.

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