The antisatellite smoke screen

By Wu Chunsi, May 28, 2015

Is it correct to argue that antisatellite weapons increase the risk of nuclear war? No.

No nation would launch a nuclear attack because an adversary possessed antisatellite weapons. Rather, it would launch an attack because an adversary evidently intended to stage a massive, strategic attack of its own. In the early stages of a nuclear attack, of course, antisatellite weapons might be used to destroy the other side's systems for command, control, communications, and intelligence. Even so, antisatellite weapons would be tools in a nuclear exchange—not the "reason" for the exchange. (The same is true of nuclear weapons themselves.) The most that can be said about antisatellite weapons and the risk of nuclear war is that, in a crisis, these weapons could complicate the calculations of nuclear weapon states, or figure into a nation's decision to take preemptive nuclear action. But again, antisatellite weapons would not be the "reason" for preemptive action.

For nuclear weapon states that maintain a no-first-use policy—including China—antisatellite weapons could not, by definition, provoke a nuclear attack. If antisatellite weapons were actually used in a crisis, but all countries involved were committed to a no-first-use policy, conflict could still be contained within the conventional arena, without escalation to nuclear war. Nuclear risk increases only if states that contemplate the first use of nuclear weapons are involved. Therefore, what is really dangerous in a crisis is a policy that allows the first use of nuclear weapons—not the existence (or non-existence) of antisatellite weapons.

Furthermore, antisatellite weapons are not even a key element in countries' decisions to adopt policies allowing the first use of nuclear weapons. My point may be clearer if I express it this way: In a world without antisatellite weapons, could all nuclear weapon states be expected to adopt no-first-use policies? The probable answer is no. Whether a nuclear weapon state takes preemptive action in a crisis is determined by the country’s political willingness to use nuclear weapons and its overall military doctrine—not by antisatellite weapons. Thus, to focus on antisatellite weapons is to misunderstand the fundamental problem endangering the world in the nuclear age.

Alert and suspicious. In January 2007, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that China had conducted an outer space experiment—but some foreign officials and media outlets rejected China's explanation of the event and instead described the experiment as an antisatellite test. No matter what Beijing said, these characterizations continued unaltered. At the same time, arguments emerged that antisatellite weapons could increase the risk of nuclear war.

In 2010, China announced it had conducted a land-based midcourse missile interception technology test. But again, some foreign countries refused to accept China's explanation, and intentionally blurred the lines between missile interception and antisatellite technology. Misconceptions in the international imagination about China's so-called antisatellite weapon program were strengthened.

For China it is thus quite natural to remain alert to, and suspicious of, arguments about antisatellite weapons and the risk of nuclear war. Indeed, China suspects that such arguments are intended only to stigmatize and disrupt China’s outer space program.

From China's perspective, the key factor in space issues is building (or rebuilding) East-West trust. China may be a newcomer to outer space, but it has legitimate rights there, which Western countries must recognize. Otherwise, they hinder their relations with China and other newcomers to outer space. They cause interactions between old and new members of the outer space club to be marred by tension and suspicion. For the United States and China, acknowledging one another's interests in outer space is a necessary foundation for effective communication regarding outer space and other strategic issues.

China is open to dialogue with the United States, and exhibits a positive attitude about engagement with Washington, but the United States doesn't seem to regard strategic engagement with China very positively. Three aspects of US attitudes deserve attention.

First, the United States is in the habit of classifying countries—as allies, as enemies, and so forth. Clearly, China does not fall into the category of US allies. In 2009, after many years of effort, China was able to break through the limitations that Washington's classifications imposed, and the two countries established the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue—a mechanism allowing high-ranking officials from both sides to discuss matters of political, economic, and strategic importance. For many years, high-level dialogue between China and the United States was referred to as "senior dialogue" because the United States reserved the term "strategic dialogue" for interactions with allies. But it seems that US attitudes toward the Strategic and Economic Dialogue are still influenced by China's "country classification." Washington appears more sensitive to the negatives than the positives in the bilateral relationship.

Second, the US side severely restricts strategic exchanges with China in fields such as military-to-military relations, outer space cooperation, and high-technology exports. These restrictions attract a lot of criticism within Chinese society and inhibit Beijing's ability to trust the United States.

Third, the United States continues to develop and work toward deployment of a strategic missile defense system within the United States and in countries along China's periphery—though China has repeatedly expressed its concerns about the system's strategic implications for China's nuclear deterrent. Bearing Washington's plans for missile defense in mind, arguments about the destabilizing nature of China's outer space program seem even less convincing.

If one wishes to moderate the risk of nuclear war, antisatellite weapons should not be a primary focus. An exchange of viewpoints on a host of other issues could do more to reduce strategic suspicions and moderate nuclear risk. From China's perspective, linking nuclear war with antisatellite weapons only indicates that Western countries want to limit China's program in outer space. This does nothing to reduce nuclear risk. Perhaps exchanges such as this roundtable, in which parties from various sides explain, clarify, and elaborate their positions on strategic issues, can help reduce misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and miscalculations.