Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, January 22, 2007

"What does China signify with its ASAT test?" January 22, 2007.

Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine this week announced that on January 11 China had shot down one of its aging weather satellites by hitting it with a kinetic kill vehicle launched from a ballistic missile.

Some news organizations like The New Straits Times of Malaysia repeated the line that "China has said that other nations had no reason to feel threatened by its space programme" (Jan 19).

Spokesperson Liu Jianchao said that the authorities had not spoken to him about the details. But he did speak generally to reporters at the Chinese Foreign Ministry's New Year reception.

"It is not only beneficial to enhancing international security and stability but also in the common interests of all states to ensure the peaceful uses of outer space and to prevent the weaponisation of and an arms race in outer space."

The US administration also kept a lid on the event for more than a week before deciding that they would refer to it as a weapons test. While that was probably a step in the right direction, it's far from the whole story.

Communication and reconnaissance satellites in low-Earth orbit - "eyes in the sky" - are essential to how the United States fights wars.

According to John Pike, a satellite expert at, "Our space assets are the first asset on the scene....

"They are absolutely central to why we are a superpower; a signature component to America's style of warfare" (qtd Brooks Bulletin Jan 18 07).

So the successful Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon or ASAT was a threat, not just to specific capabilities but to US status as the "world's sole superpower" and to aspirations of dominance, prestige, wealth and influence that are linked to that status.

The largely American network of satellites is crucial to 21st century military communications and reconnaissance missions, to ballistic missile defence, the delivery of precision-guided munitions through satellite signals, and the depoloyment of unmanned aerial vehicles. (Times of India).

The American system of projecting power around the world in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is organized around a collection of ships known as the Carrier Strike Group. The Carrier Strike Group can launch air strikes, carry out maritime interdiction, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, mine warfare, and oil-platform defense and is heavily dependent on satellite communication. Without satellite communication, carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf would be practically blind and unable to function.

Predictably, the US Government lays claim to privileges for itself that it intends to deny to international competitors. In October 6, 2006, President George W. Bush signed an order claiming an American right to deny adversaries access to space for hostile purposes. The policy also opposed the development of treaties or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space.

It said, "Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power."

However, at that time, White House spokesman Tony Snow emphasized that "The notion that you would do defence from space is different from that of weaponisation of space. We're comfortable with the policy" (BBC).

The United States has had the ability to knock satellites out of the sky since the mid-1980s, but the weapon is launched from an aircraft.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the US National Security council, said Thursday (Jan 18) "The United States believes China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of co-operation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area,"

Defence analyst Robert Ayson from the Australian National University said (Karvelas Australian Jan 20 07) the idea that space could remain free of military activity was naive.

"Like any country with a dominant position, the US has to expect that that will be eventually challenged."

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Defense Information express the concern that debris from the explosion has produced 40,000 fragments which may stay in orbit for a decade.

Although one of the most detailed and factual reports of the Chinese accomplishment so far has come from Brooks, Alberta, the Brooks Bulletin confesses "Precisely what drove China to act now remains a mystery."

Colonel Sam Gardiner would not be puzzled. On Tuesday, he reported that a second carrier strike group would leave the US west coast that same day. It would be joined by naval mine clearing assets from both the United States and the UK. Patriot missile defense systems have also been ordered to deploy to the Gulf, Gardiner said.

Gardiner is a retired colonel of the US Air Force who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College.

Gardiner concluded that this new deployment

"has to be called escalation. We have to remind ourselves, just as Iran is supporting groups inside Iraq, the United States is supporting groups inside Iran. Just as Iran has special operations troops operating inside Iraq, we’ve read the United States has special operations troops operating inside Iran.

"Just as Iran is supporting Hamas, two weeks ago we found out the United States is supporting arms for Abbas. Just as Iran and Syria are supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon we’re now learning the White House has approved a finding to allow the CIA to support opposition groups inside Lebanon. Just as Iran is supporting Syria, we’ve learned recently that the United States is going to fund Syrian opposition groups.

"We learned this week the President authorized an attack on the Iranian liaison office in Irbil."

Gardiner offers this additional insider speculation: "if the White House is on a path to strike Iran, we’ll see a few more steps unfold.

"First, we know there is a National Security Council staff-led
group whose mission is to create outrage in the world against Iran. Just like before Gulf II, this media group will begin to release stories to sell a strike against Iran. Watch for the outrage stuff. The Patriot missiles going to the GCC states are only part of the missile defense assets. I would expect to see the deployment of some of the European-based missile defense assets to Israel, just as they were before Gulf II.

"I would expect deployment of additional USAF fighters into the bases in Iraq, maybe some into Afghanistan.

"I think we will read about the deployment of some of the newly arriving Army brigades going into Iraq being deployed to the border with Iran. Their mission will be to guard against any Iranian movements into Iraq.

"As one of the last steps before a strike, we’ll see USAF tankers moved to unusual places, like Bulgaria. These will be used to refuel the US-based B-2 bombers on their strike missions into Iran. When that happens, we’ll only be days away from a strike."

China has just signed a $19 billion dollar natural gas deal with Iran and 2 years ago signed a $100 billion deal for oil. Even by oil industry standards, those are enormous deals. So China has a legitimate interest in the security of Iran's energy supplies.

Of course this is all speculation and circumstantial evidence. In a carefully worded report, the New York Times paraphrases unnamed Senior American officers who "said the increase in naval power should not be viewed as preparations for any offensive strike against Iran. But they acknowledged that the ability to hit Iran would be increased and that Iranian leaders might well call the growing presence provocative."

Or not. On January 17, CNN's Jamie McIntyre reported that the successful test followed three unsuccessful attempts. So the timing of the January 11 test may have been dictated strictly by technical .

We must be careful not to expect multipolarity to come in a single cataclysmic collapse. Although it might seem like that at the time, we can already see that a lot has gone into trying to preserve the order based on the US as the sole superpower, but with intolerable results.

Color revolutions (aka post modern coups) finally ground to a halt with the killing of rioters in Abidjan, Uzbekistan.

After some qualified success in Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon, Bush's democracy crusade has begun to unravel.

The so-called "Cedar revolution" in Lebanon is the most spectacular example.

Uzbekistan responded to what it interpreted as the US fomenting a color revolution there by evicting the US from its Karshi-Khanabad air base (aka K2). Kyrgyzstan appears to be on the verge of doing the same.

That year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization formally asked the US to give an idea how much longer it would be in Afghanistan The SCO has also established an SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and has agreed to join international efforts to create an anti-drug buffer around Afghanistan. PINR and Asia Times have discussed Japan's role in Central Asia as a counterbalance to these developments.

Some people ask why China doesn't just pull the plug on that part of America's debt for which they hold the paper. There are lots of answers to that question. First, they would like to spend it on something better than bringing down the US. Second, they would like to keep the lucrative American market for their manufactured goods. Third, they are not keen to start a war. Fourth, crashing the American economy would damage a lot of other countries whose currencies depend on the dollar.

Finally, in my opinion, China would like to see a soft landing for Uncle Sam.

Meanwhile, CounterPunch reports this month that Iran has dumped the dollar as its reserve currency. Arab nations are shifting reserves into Euros.

Can the international community negotiate a graceful demotion of the US from its unfortunate status as the world's sole superpower? We all have reason to hope so.

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