Commentary Magazine


Will the New York Times Wage Anti-Anti-Satellite Warfare?

On January 11, China rocked defense ministries around the world by testing an anti-satellite rocket, employing a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a small target 537 miles above the earth. It was the first test of such a system by any country in more than 20 years. Among other consequences, it generated fears within the Pentagon that the Chinese are determined to develop the capacity to blind the United States as part of the opening shot of any future war.

I noted at the time, in Lost in Space, that the New York Times editorial page had a different view. The paper immediately suggested that the Chinese test might have been “intended to prod the United States to join serious negotiations” to limit anti-satellite warfare. And I called that view nonsense, noting that the Chinese might well “have very good reasons for developing an anti-satellite warfare capability, independently of whether the U.S. participates in arms-control talks or not.”

I am not a betting man, but in the wake of a story in the Times this morning, “U.S. Knew of China Missile Test, but Kept Silent,” I am willing to wager ten pounds of rice that the Times is poised to publish another editorial dilating further on the same nonsensical point. The only open question is whether this editorial will appear tomorrow, the day after, or later in the week.

The reason for my confidence is simple. It turns out, according to this morning’s paper, that U.S. intelligence had advance warning of January’s anti-satellite test but American officials declined to tell the Chinese to stop. If only the Bush administration had spoken out, goes the implication, the Chinese would not have felt compelled to misbehave.

Indeed, according to “experts outside government,” the Times informs us, smarter and more sensible policymakers

might have been able to discourage the Chinese from launching the missile, had [administration] officials been willing to enter into a broader discussion of ways to regulate the military competition in space. China had long advocated an agreement to ban weapons in space, an approach the Bush administration has rejected in order to maintain maximum flexibility for developing antimissile defenses.

In other words, fault for the Chinese action does not lie with the Chinese but with ourselves.
Not only that, but according to these same experts, halting this and future Chinese tests would have been remarkably simple, almost as easy as waving a wand. All the Bush administration had to do was talk.

“Had the United States been willing to discuss the military use of space with the Chinese in Geneva,” the Times quotes Jeffrey G. Lewis of the New America Foundation, “that might have been enough to dissuade them from going through with it.” “This was absolutely preventable,” chimes in Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress. “The Chinese have been proposing a treaty to ban weapons in space for years.” Yet the United States has obstinately and blindly demurred: “We have refused,” says Cirincione, “in order to pursue this fantasy of space-based antimissile weapons.”

To be sure, the Times reporters do offer a number of countervailing voices: Peter Rodman, until recently in the Bush administration and an occasional Commentary contributor, notes that the Chinese “have been patiently developing this capability. I don’t see why they would trade it away.” The military authority John E. Pike says, “I don’t think we could have talked them out of testing against a target.” So at the very least, the Times makes apparent, there is a debate.

The issues in that debate are fairly clear. 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 would be a quite logical direction in which to proceed. As the Pentagon’s most recent Quadrennial Defense Review concludes, “[o]f the major and emerging powers, 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.”

But whatever the Chinese are really up to, I am making a prediction: as sure as yin is followed by yang, later this week the Times will publish an editorial blaming the belligerent, recalcitrant Bush administration for its failure to engage in dialogue, and thereby provoking the Chinese test.

If I am wrong about the Times, you can collect your ten pounds of rice by sending an empty self-addressed, postage-paid sack to Commentary at 165 E. 56th Street, New York, NY, 10022.

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