Examining China’s Debate on Military Space Programs: Was the ASAT Test Really a Surprise?

Examining China’s Debate on Military Space Programs: Was the ASAT Test Really a Surprise?

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Erik Quam

Research Assistant, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


The People's Republic of China conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test at about 6 am January 12, 2007 local time, when it shot down a weather satellite in low-Earth orbit, more than 500 miles above the Earth. The test was the first ASAT test in space in more than two decades, when the United States and the former Soviet Union both conducted similar tests in the early 1980s. While many analysts and officials outside of China expressed surprise at the January test, a careful examination of recent literature coming out of China on the issue of space security gave a number of indications that a test was likely or at least under consideration.

Although this was the first test of its kind carried out by China, the debate over space weapons and the development of ASAT technology is not new to Beijing. Chinese writings on the issue of space weapons and the peaceful use of space have been prevalent over the course of the past several years. An examination of the Chinese literature on these issues has raised a number of questions, including why these analysts chose to write on these issues at this particular time and what, if any significance, can be afforded the opinions expressed by these writers.

Official policy statements from the Chinese government have consistently proclaimed that space exploration is the right of all mankind and that China always endeavors to utilize space for peaceful purposes.[1] Chinese Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs Cheng Jingye said in June 2006 that: "It is in the interest of all countries to protect humanity from space weapons."[2] Despite these public statements, coverage of the issue of space weapons in the Chinese media pointed to the potential existence of a space weapons program – a program that was conclusively confirmed by the January ASAT test. The tone of many past articles examining the space programs of other states shows a skepticism from Chinese analysts regarding the utilization of space only for peaceful purposes, and appeared to justify the strategic necessity for a country to have a military space program that included ASAT capabilities.

Focus on U.S. Space Threat

The coverage of space security issues in the Chinese press in the last year or so gave a clear indication of China's concern about U.S. space dominance and its implications on Chinese security needs. A November 2006 article in the People's Daily criticized U.S. military space policy saying that "as of today, the only one who is truly putting space technology to military use is the United States."[3] The article continued that the United States had already utilized space for warfare in the first and second Gulf Wars, the Kosovo campaign and in Afghanistan.[4] In those conflicts the United States used space assets to enhance their war fighting capabilities in these campaigns.

Prior to the January 2007 test, much of the chatter by foreign analysts with regards to the then-suspected Chinese ASAT program revolved around China's reported use of ground-based lasers. In late 2006, U.S. government officials accused China's military of using a laser to blind U.S. satellites. Chinese analysts responding to these claims tended to attack the U.S. space weapons programs, without ever refuting the story. While discussing allegations of Chinese laser tests, Chinese analysts and writers focused heavily on the fact that the U.S. military had been working on a ground-based laser, and that such a system was already deployed in New Mexico, where a large space observatory is being used to research ground based ASAT laser systems.[5] One article goes as far as to say that "American criticism of Chinese ASAT technology is a pretext for [the U.S.] developing its own space weapons."[6] Chinese analysts have also cited the U.S. air force budget as evidence of U.S. ASAT and ground-based laser research, saying that the goal of ASAT research is for the U.S. to develop "highly capable laser weapons."[7] These accusations appeared aimed at not only bringing attention to the U.S. military space program, but also providing justification for China's development of similar systems.[8]

Using Russia as a Proxy

Possibly the clearest indication prior to the January test of the Chinese military's perspectives on ASAT development – and thus the likelihood that a test could occur – was the discussion in the domestic media of the Russian space and space weapons programs. These writings never directly referred to Chinese systems, nor explicitly discussed what China's policy should be; however, Chinese public discussions of strategic topics have often employed the tactic of using a third party as a proxy to express perspectives that would undoubtedly be controversial. A good example of this use of a proxy nation was an article published on Xinhua in which a Chinese analyst gave an explicit assessment of the best way for Russia to counter U.S. space weapons and reconnaissance satellites – noting particularly the necessity of being able to destroy U.S. space assets.[9] This writer prefaced the discussion of the Russian options with the note that – like China – Russia has maintained a policy of supporting the peaceful use of outer space.[10] By acknowledging the Russian necessity for developing ASAT weapons, the Chinese analyst is also justifying China's need for such a program – a program which at that point was already under development.
In another article published by Xinhau outlining the history of Russia's ASAT weapons development, the author argued that due to U.S. ASAT development, Russia needed to develop its own systems or else lose ground to the United States and contribute to U.S. hegemony in space.[11] "By revitalizing the Russian military space program, Russia will strive for a modern space warfare system in the next ten years to challenge America's hegemony in space."[12] That same source explains that the Russian struggle against U.S. space dominance is twofold. On the one hand, Moscow publicly criticizes Washington's space policies, and aligns itself with other states to oppose U.S. space domination and limit U.S. power. On the other, according to the Chinese analyst, Russia was developing the advanced space weapons systems to balance against the United States.[13] The policies attributed here to Russia are markedly similar to the approach that China itself has taken regarding U.S. military space programs.

Revealing Threat Perceptions

A careful examination of Chinese writings on military space developments in the latter part of 2006 reveals an assumption coming from Chinese analysts that the United States and Russia were both developing and deploying, or planning to deploy, ASAT systems. Some articles state that ASAT weapons systems are one of Russia's top priorities in the next 10 years of the Russian space plan.[14] One article further indicated that the Russian ASAT focus is on lasers and cluster munitions and that they will be ground-based, air based and space based.[15] It goes on to say that ASAT deployment by the United States and Russia will begin soon, possibly in the next year, and be effective by 2009-2010, and states explicitly that these two space powers are already engaged in a "fierce" race.[16] As a proclaimed space power, China has no intention of ceding outer space to Russian or U.S. control; therefore, based on these threat perceptions, China's development of military space assets is not surprising.

Chinese concerns about the use of military and reconnaissance satellites are not confined to U.S. and Russian programs. Analysts, and likely policy makers, in China have also recently shown significant apprehension about the development of military space assets by neighboring countries Japan and South Korea. In September 2006, China's official news agency Xinhua reported on the launch of a Japanese military reconnaissance satellite. The report noted that Japan will launch several more satellites with this system that will enhance its capabilities to communicate overseas, such as with its forces stationed in Iraq, and will allow Japan to better communicate with its forces anywhere near the Korean Peninsula, China, Russia and Taiwan.[17] This will greatly enhance the Japanese military's capabilities to deploy troops and to communicate with them in the event of military action in Northeast Asia. An August 2006 article posted on a website for Dongfang Junshi (Eastday's Military Column) discussed the South Korean launch of a reconnaissance satellite, noting that although this satellite was designed specifically to spy on North Korea, it gave Seoul the potential capability to spy on the entire world.[18] In further discussion of the South Korean satellite, one Chinese analyst wrote that in the twenty-first century all major powers will compete for the space battlefield, and that in launching the discussed reconnaissance satellite, South Korea had made a giant leap forward.[19] The concerns expressed by these analysts indicated a clear perception that the military use of space by other nations was a threat to China's security.

Prelude to a Test

A number of telling articles in the latter part of 2006 take specific aim at U.S. space policy, blaming Washington for pushing the international community into an arms race in outer space. These articles coincide with what now appears to be initial testing by China of the ASAT system that would ultimately be used in January 2007. While these initial tests – three in total between April and November 2006 – were not made public at the time, U.S. officials were aware of them. One article, published by Xinhua in November 2006, stated that because of U.S. space activities, both Russia and India have accelerated the research and development of their own systems. [20] The article goes on to say that as a result, space weaponization has become an important and difficult issue for every government.[21] Another article, published in December 2006 on a Chinese military website gave a clear account of the Chinese perception of space weapons trends and the potential threat that China may be facing in space. That December article further noted that many states were actively working on military space programs in 2006, including the United States, Russia, Israel, South Korea, Japan and European countries – all of which had launched military satellites that year.[22] It goes on to say that the victors of future wars will depend on space and that space is daily becoming the most important ground for military commanders.[23]

Chinese analytical writings and media coverage of the issue of space weapons in the year prior to the successful ASAT test clearly indicated the character of China's threat perception vis-à-vis the space programs of the United States and countries directly on its periphery, such as Russia, South Korea and Japan. Additionally, the discussion in the Chinese media about foreign ASAT development – particularly with regards to Russia's strategic need – appear to be a clear example of the use of a proxy to represent China in a discussion about strategic policies. It is important to note that it is often difficult to ascertain what expertise authors of these writings have, or to what extent they represent the views of the leadership in Beijing. However, articles in official media outlets such as Xinhua or the People's Daily would to some extent have to be vetted by China's central policy makers. In retrospect, it could be argued that Chinese writers were preparing a basis for rationalizing the subsequent test.

While impossible to prove conclusively, the build-up of interest in Chinese media on the issue of military space in the year prior to the test may have been a result of one of two scenarios. First, an open debate may be occurring within Chinese policymaking circles as the civilian and military leaderships, as well as well-placed scholars, argue what course China should take with regards to space development. This would not be the first time that differences of opinion on policy within the Chinese government have been debated in the media.[24] This existence of an on-going debate may help to explain the almost two-week delay between the test and the release of an official statement – indicating that some in the civilian leadership may have been left in the dark about the test. The success of this test may also indicate that those advocating the development of space weapons are becoming a more powerful voice within the government and military. Second, Chinese officials were well aware of the fact that governments, intelligence organizations and academics around the world would have been tracking what is being printed in China on this issue and analyzing those articles and debates. Additionally, China's leadership clearly knew that U.S. authorities would be able to track the earlier non-impact tests that began in April 2006. China has been pushing for negotiation on an international treaty banning weaponization of outer space. Publishing articles on these issues in the open media – as well as openly testing ASAT capabilities – could be Beijing's signal to the rest of the world that China sees an increasing threat to its security stemming from the militarization of space and that the international community needs to come together to settle these issues or China will be left with no options but to join the scramble for an increasingly militarized space.


[1] "China's Space Activities, A White Paper," The Information Office of the State Council, November 22, 2000, Beijing, China, Pg. 7.
[2] "China Urges Measures to Prevent Outer Space Weaponization," Xinhua, June 8, 2006, accessed at FBIS CPP20060608442013,
[3] "PRC: 'Experts' Rebut Claim of Shenzhou VI 'Military Objectives' by 'Some' Media," Beijng Renmin Wang, October 26, 2005, at FBIS CPP20051026510011,
[4] Ibid.
[5] Gao Yijun, "美国将继续研制陆基反卫星激光武器" [America Continues to Research and Develop Land-based Anti-Satellite Laser Weapons], People's Daily Online, May 4, 2006,
[6] Zhang Mingqi "美军媒体诬蔑中国使用激光干扰致其卫星失明" [American Military Media Vilifies China's Use of Satellites to Interfere with Satellites], Xinhuanet, Originally from Global Times, September 30, 2006,
[7] Ye Pingfan, "美国:研制激光武器 要打人家卫星" [America: Research Laser Weapons, Want to Attack Satellites.] Xinhuanet, May 9, 2006,
[8] "PRC: 'Experts' Rebut Claim of Shenzhou VI 'Military Objectives' by 'Some' Media," Beijng Renmin Wang, October 26, 2005, at FBIS CPP20051026510011,
[9] "美国要打太空战俄罗斯该如何应对," [If The United States Wants to Fight a Space War, How Should Russia Respond] Xinhuanet, June 15, 2005,
[10] Ibid.
[11]Lei Huai, "俄计划太空复兴,反卫星武器可打两干公里高卫星" [Russia Plans Space Rejuvenation, Anti-Satellite Weapons Can Attack Satellites at 2,000 Kilometers] Xinhua Online, November 26, 2006,
[12]Chu Xinyan, "俄罗斯推太空军事复兴计划 将研发反卫星武器" [Russia Promotes Plan to Revitalize Military Space Program, Research and Development on Anti-Satellite Weapons,] New Capital Report, posted at Sohunews, November 22, 2006,
[13] Ibid.
[14] Lei Huai, "俄计划太空复兴 反卫星武器可打两千公里高卫星" [Russia's Plan to Revitalize Space Program, ASAT Weapons Capable of Attacking Satellites 2,000 Kilometers Up,] Xinhua, November 26, 2006,
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Li Chunyu, "日本秘建军用卫星通讯网 海外作战能力将大增" [Japan Secret Military Satellite Network, Drastically Improves Japan's Ability to Fight Foreign Wars,] International Herald Report in Xinhua, September 26, 2006,
[18]Cheng Jiahao, "韩国发射首颗军用卫星 军民两用坚实朝鲜," [South Korea Launches First Military Satellite, Dual Military and Civilian Use to Watch North Korea,] Global Times, in, August 2, 2006,
[19] Ibid.
[20] Jin Hao, "2006年美国加紧武装太空 四类武器打造太空霸权" [In 2006 The United States Intensify Space Weapons 4 Kinds of Weapons to Forge Space Hegemony,] Xinhuanet, November 23, 2006,
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ma Jun, "2006年:军事卫星满天飞 太空充满火药味[图]" [2006: Military Satellites Fill the Skies, Space is Full of the Taste of Gunpowder,] World Times, posted by, December 11, 2006,
[23] Ibid.
[24] There have been a number of examples since the Chinese Communist Party came to power when the media was employed to carry out policy debates. One example of this is Mao's re-emergence to power in 1964 and 1965 as he attacked the Party and policies, ultimately launching the Cultural Revolution. In 1989 proper course of action to deal with the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were also openly printed in Chinese media outlets.

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