Today's date:
Spring 2007

China's Satellite Missile Strike Raises Worries About a Pearl Harbor in Space

William S. Cohen was US secretary of defense in the second Clinton administration. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in January.

NPQ | In 2001, just as you were handing power at the Pentagon over to Donald Rumsfeld, a commission he headed on outer space warned of a "Pearl Harbor" in which some enemy might blind and incapacitate the United States by shooting down the satellites on which US defense depends.

China has just shown it has such a capability. Is a " Pearl Harbor" now a legitimate worry? What was behind its space strike, and what are the implications?

William Cohen | First, the Chinese wanted to demonstrate they have the technical capability to take out a satellite. That in itself is a show of force. It makes clear to everyone they have rapidly entered the 21st century of warfare—the capability of taking out "eyes and ears." I'm assuming that was the basic message they were sending. Clearly, it was a shot across the bow.

Second, they may have been signaling that, since they have this demonstrated capability, it is time to sit down with the US and Russians as equals to find a way to prevent the weaponization of space.

Third, however, because this strike was done in such a secret way, it raises apprehensions all around, not just in the US, but also in Japan where satellites are its eyes on the North Korean threat as well as a key element of its communications.

The dynamic here now will be similar to the North Korean nuclear threat. Despite what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says, there are important leaders in Japan who want to debate going nuclear in response to North Korea. Now if China becomes a threat in space, there will be pressure to counter that somehow as well.

In short, it is not simply a bonus for China to have demonstrated it can take out a satellite. The fact that it has done it in secret raises the specter of a "Pearl Harbor" scenario for whoever is vulnerable in space—which is everyone who is there. And it particularly raises concerns over how such a capability might be used to thwart any defense of Taiwan in case of war.

NPQ | Is China's capability to strike in space necessarily inconsistent with its claim of a "peaceful rise" as a world power?

Cohen | It's ambiguous. And when there is ambiguity you always think of worst-case scenarios. Perhaps it would be wise for the Chinese now to find a way to de-escalate tensions by, for example, moving some of their ballistic missiles back away from Taiwan.

NPQ | Where do we go from here—a new treaty against weapons in space, or a new arms race in space?

Cohen | At the moment, there is no trust among the space-capable powers of the US, Russia and China with respect to what each other is up to. No one feels confident that the others aren't carrying out secret programs to take your satellites out in an offensive manner or preemptively. You'd have to go a long way, therefore, to find enough agreement among these three powers for any treaty banning weapons in space. For now, I'm afraid, everyone will be hedging their bets.

NPQ | This isn't just a military issue. So much global commerce is now conducted via outer space from global positioning satellites to cell phone communications. Isn't an arms race in space going to threaten all that?

Cohen | Absolutely. One of the great ironies of this moment in history is that we are all becoming so integrated that a threat to one is a threat to all. For China, which depends on exports to the US, to threaten anyone in space, least of all the US, is to make itself vulnerable in turn. In the end, I hope everyone sees that before it is too late.