HONG KONG: China's growing pride and self-assertion have over-reached themselves dangerously. Future historians may well see Beijing's use of a missile to destroy an old weather satellite as having more lasting global impact than the Iraq war. For the present, China's action has focused attention on a potential threat to U.S. security at least as great as any emanating from the Middle East.
For now, the response of the United States and its allies will be confined to public statements and diplomatic protests. But the longer-term reaction in terms of threat perceptions and the technological and spending answers to them will be crucial and could be huge. Meanwhile, the missile event will not make it any easier for the United States and China to find a way out of tensions arising from their huge trade imbalance.
In a narrow sense, China had every right to use one of its own rockets to destroy its own obsolete satellites. Beijing could argue that it was exercising its own right to unilateral action to protect its national interests in the same way that the United States has so often done during the Bush administration. The United States itself once destroyed old satellites and in August reiterated its opposition to a formal ban on space weaponry or on any restrictions on its space activities.
But that is not the point. In the first place, China's action offends against the informal international understanding that had long existed to desist from sending weapons into space, and to avoiding filling space with the debris of exploded satellites that could put other satellites out of action.
More important, it is awakening the United States to the vulnerability of its own assets in space and the economic as well as military dependence on their effective functioning. In other words, this could be the start of a new space race similar to that which followed the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 or the missile race of the 1980s, which ultimately bankrupted the Soviets.
Of course, China is still far behind the United States in space capability. But why then tweak the American nose in this way? Was this just an exercise in national self-assertion? Or was it designed to show China's capability in order to extract U.S. concessions on other issues?
Washington was aware of the potential to carry out such an action. What is new is the willingness of China to use that publicly. Of course, it may be that China will eventually agree to a moratorium on such actions — but presumably it would expect the United States to back down from its "star wars" missile-shield program or agree to an international treaty banning weapons in space as a quid pro quo. Some voices in the United States favor an international agreement.
But perhaps Washington will be in no mood for such a trade-off and focus instead on countermeasures, spending heavily on systems to evade inferior Chinese technology. The current administration began life viewing China as a strategic rival, but was then diverted by 9/11, terrorism and Middle East issues. But with the failure of the war in Iraq, there is every likelihood that U.S. attention will turn from trying to address multiple small on-the-ground threats to larger strategic issues. It may be encouraged to do so by allies in Asia — including India — and Europe alike, particularly those who take a longer term view of the evolution of power in the world than has of late been typical in Washington.
Meanwhile, American politicians on both sides of the aisle, already tiring of the rhetoric of the "war on terror" are beginning to return to the notion that China may be a bigger threat as Beijing aims to counter overwhelming U.S. military power by targeting America's communications and software vulnerabilities.
Given the possible U.S. response, China's action could have been an aberration. Caution, cooperation and a low profile have been the watchwords of its diplomacy since the time of Deng Xiaoping. Nothing should be done to divert national focus from the economy and modernization. Good international behavior, avoidance of confrontation with the United States, was essential to develop trade and investment, learn from abroad.
So Beijing may now make an attempt to undo the damage by promising future cooperation with other countries with space capability. But it be may too late to undo the impact on perceptions of China of this demonstration of its missile prowess. It will be hard to put this genie back in the bottle.