A generation after the United States used a missile to blast one of its satellites from space, China has done the same. When Beijing achieved its first human-spaceflight success in 2003, we carefully searched for motivations.
China clearly has the resources to make forays into the last frontier, whether for research or prestige purposes. Spaceflight also provides a limited opportunity for the Chinese leadership to strive for greater legitimacy, although that derives most significantly from the government’s ability to continue expanding the nation’s economy.
China’s space travels possibly mask an ominous desire by certain contentious members of the Communist Party and the country’s military: to define, shape and seize advantage in the worrisome fourth battlefield of space.
This type of discussion is nothing new. Whenever a country moves from a position of relative weakness to one of relative strength, as China has done, disruption is routine. The existing order and its dominant players are loath to share influence, especially when the newcomer does not request but demands it.
It is as futile, however, to try to fight the emergence of powers such as China as it is to battle any other inevitability. The better approach is to work with the changing environment, with an emphasis on integrating Beijing into the international community and giving it a growing stake in systemic stability.
China’s persistent human-rights violations, environmental destruction and a serious lack of transparency are cause for concern.
In matters such as the anti-satellite test, Beijing should be more forthcoming through advance warnings and detailed explanations. The US and other countries should consistently push China to improve on its record, and all parties should be open to negotiations that would limit the weaponisation of space.
Still, there is only so much that the Chinese Communist Party can do with one foot hopelessly stuck in the past. Eventually, the system will have to change.
That is where the Chinese people enter the discussion. They are the ones who will lead the third revolution. They will speak when their government reaches too far, spends too lavishly, and otherwise threatens China’s position and growth. Once roused, they will take action.
If ruling communists fail to reform, they will only accelerate their own demise.