Friday, November 6, 2009

The Space Arms Race begins: Should the U.S. and China cooperate?

Gordon G. Chang

Did the arms race in space begin this week?

"Competition between military forces is developing towards the sky and space, it is extending beyond the atmosphere and even into outer space," said the chief of the Chinese air force in the Nov. 2 edition of People's Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of China's military. "This development is a historical inevitability and cannot be undone."

What cannot be undone is the effect of General Xu Qiliang's words. Chinese state media, however, tried to do just that, contending that the foreign media misinterpreted him. Then Chinese diplomats got in on the act. "China has never and will not participate in an outer space arms race in any form," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu on Nov. 5. "The position of China on this point remains unchanged."

China's position--at least up until this week--was that no nation should use space for the purposes of war. In February of last year, Beijing and Moscow introduced a draft space treaty at a disarmament conference in Geneva. The Bush administration opposed it on the sensible ground that a deal would be unverifiable--any object in space can be used as a weapon if it can be maneuvered to arrange a collision, for instance. Moreover, a ground-launched missile can also be used to knock out satellites, space stations or shuttles.

The Russians and Chinese, in all probability, were just engaging in a public relations exercise last year because they obviously had no intention of ever allowing the intrusive inspections that would have to be built into any meaningful treaty. Yet, minutes after his inauguration, President Obama called Beijing's and Moscow's bluff by coming out in favor of a global agreement to keep weapons out of the heavens.

In response to Obama's countermove, Beijing--or at least the People's Liberation Army--has now changed tack and announced its intention to begin the space arms race in earnest. General Xu's bold words, interestingly enough, come at the same time that some in Washington are calling for civilian cooperation with the Chinese in space.

Read the analysis, HERE.

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