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China's satellite killer: Should India worry?
Srikanth Kondapalli
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January 24, 2007
Last week media reports (later officially confirmed) indicated that China has tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. The Chinese ASAT programme is not new and has been in news for at least 10 years.

China has several ASAT programmes commissioned simultaneously, including the piggyback satellite and micro-satellites of Qinghua University in Beijing, and the latest satellite killer. The latter part is interesting. The Dong Feng 21 intermediate range ballistic missile is considered to be configured to kill satellites just like the Pentagon tried to in the 1960s with its Pershing class missiles. So DF-21 must have been used by China last week though there is no confirmation about this.

The Second Artillery Corps, the custodian of the strategic rocket forces of China, has been given lift recently with higher defence budget allocations and modernisation efforts. Although touted as a civilian venture, the much publicised Shenzhou series of manned spacecraft launches also have the Second Artillery hand in it. These programmes got a fillip with the launch of Project 863 in 1986 but took off effectively in the 1990s with a major focus on space-based technologies. The latest Chinese experiment is a product of these early efforts.

On the triggers for the Chinese action, a few years ago some Chinese satellites suddenly went out of circulation and the Chinese suspect this to be the handiwork of the US agencies, although there is no confirmation on this.

Secondly, the US is planning to set up a ballistic missile defence system in East Asia to constrain North Korea and possibly China. The US test recently in Alaska is reportedly successful.

One of the aspects of the BMD is its heavy dependence on space-based systems including satellites and lasers. Additionally, the US is planning to set up space-based troops by 2015 to have supreme command over space based assets. China has been critical of these moves and has been preparing to counter the US.

While initially China has argued that the US-led BMD violates the 1972 anti-ballistic missile system treaty and that China's strategic nuclear deterrence would be weakened. China also said it would proliferate more weapons of mass destruction to countries of concern. China also indicated that it will go ahead with its own BMD preparations. So the latest Chinese event is a step in this direction.

A few years ago, Falun Gong activists in Taiwan were suspected to have jammed Chinese telecasts on the mainland for a few seconds. In the even of a cross-strait war, Taiwan is likely to step up such activities to drastically affect China's military communication as command and control systems are crucial in future wars. So this has also alarmed Beijing. China is also likely use the ASAT weapons to kill Taiwanese Republic of China satellites launched with the US cooperation. Well, Beijing says Taiwan issue is its internal matter and that it cannot in any way join the US-led BMD system. The most ironical aspect of all this is that the US itself has helped, in a way, the Chinese ASAT programme. Loral & Hughes Inc, a US company, was shut down by US Congress after it was suspected that the company transferred satellite guidance systems to the Chinese But it is now in business once again in China after paying a fine of about $14 million! The US makes a hue and cry when it comes to transfer of technology to India, including its stalling of any Russian transfers of cryogenic engines to India in the 1990s.

The Chinese action then appears to be a reaction to US preparations in space. However, what is intriguing is that China is building up such offensive capabilities that could be used on other countries' space-based assets as well, including India and others.

Officially, China has not indicated that India is the target with both having a no first use doctrine. But a series of incidents in the recent past indicate that India may be one of the scenarios in its space-based operations, despite the recent political-diplomatic bonhomie. Ironically, both China and India share a common official position towards outer space. That is, both oppose outer space weaponisation and have indicated as such in their official documents. China's latest moves go beyond its officially-stated resolve.

While China has signed nuclear warhead 'de-targeting' and 'non-targeting' agreements with Russia and the US respectively in the 1990s, no such agreement or understanding exists with India despite the latter's request in that direction. In fact at least three meetings between Indian and Chinese officials took place with no progress achieved.

Also, the Indian defence ministry in its official annual reports indicated that several of its cities are targeted by Chinese warheads deployed in the northern regions of Tibet and Kunming military districts. Last year's opening of the Tibetan railway adds further to these Chinese efforts as the missiles can be transported easily to the bordering areas if the need arises.

Western estimates indicate that China is deploying at least 70 to 80 short range ballistic missiles on its Taiwan war front, although some of these could trickle into its India front in the coming years.

In the mid-1990s, China has opposed the European initiative in setting up space-based cooperation systems in India. A few years later, in 1999, China tested an anti-ballistic missile system in Tibet. A news report in Wenhui Huanqiu stated that this test involved a missile system to counter 'multiple launches from a neighbouring country'. That is, even before India could operationalise its Agni-II series of missiles, China has developed an antidote.

the time India succeeds in developing Agni-III, China would be in a comfortable position to counter that as well.

After India expressed interest in the possible import of Patriot advanced combat systems-II from the US and Arrow missile systems from Israel in order to counter ballistic missile launches from Pakistan, Chinese official papers criticised Indian moves. They, nevertheless, do not mention the destabilisation in the region caused by the Chinese missiles/technologies transfers to Pakistan or the continuing cooperation with Chinese scientists at Fatehgunj near Rawalpindi.

Srikanth Kondapalli is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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