Since there has been no official comment from Beijing, China’s anti-satellite (Asat) test conducted on January 12 is open to multiple interpretations. It could be a message that China intends to be a world power of the first status in every way, including military. But, given the subtle way in which the Chinese operate, this could well be a technology-demonstration effort designed to tell the US that the Chinese will contest every effort of the world’s sole superpower to corral them. The danger, however, is that the test could trigger off experimentation in Asat technologies that had been on hold for the past 20 years or so since the Cold War ended. If so, this is a disturbing development.
There has been a longstanding taboo about the use of space for military purposes, despite space already being used for a variety of important military purposes. Reconnaissance, communications and electronic intelligence gathering satellites are considered vital for military success. Navigation satellites are important for the accuracy of missiles and military platforms. However, countries like the US have opposed a ban on Asat tests on the plea that they need to preserve their freedom of action. An arms race in space is not in the interest of any country, and to this end, the US bears the responsibility of not only observing all the existing international treaties, but also of shaping newer ones that will ensure that space does not become the new battleground. As it is, space experts say that such tests lead to an enormous accumulation of space debris which are a hazard to other satellites as well as manned flights.
There is need for action on a Space Preservation Treaty that will connect to the ideals of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that banned the placement of nuclear weapons or WMDs in the orbit of Earth, or on any celestial body or station. Such a treaty would ban all space weapons. There is an alternative model of cooperative activity. The International Space Station is a prime example of it.