More than a year has passed since China’s People’s Liberation Army smashed an aging Chinese satellite to bits with a test of a kinetic-kill anti-satellite weapon. Hardliners remain shocked, shocked, shocked that China should have done such a dastardly thing even though it merely duplicated, in a rough sort of way, an American test conducted in 1985. “We are now in a contested environment,” is the new space-warrior mantra.

That assessment seems to make sense. Even a casual look at the literature of the People’s Liberation Army suggests an obsessive pursuit of ways to counter US high-tech military power, including US assets in space. America’s “revolution in military affairs” and its new way of precision war haunt the leaders of the PLA, which is attempting to modernize by cutting back manpower and making the “informationalization” of its forces its highest priority.

Hardliners in the Chinese government and the PLA seem to assume that a military confrontation short of all-out war with the United States is virtually inevitable; meanwhile, mirror-image hardliners in the United States have long believed that a future military showdown of some sort with China is likely, particularly if China’s economy continues to boom and the Taiwan issue remains hot.

Are China’s hardliners winning the battle to shape China’s official policy toward the United States? That uncertainty bedevils analysts in Washington and perhaps even in Beijing. In the bad old days, before President Richard Nixon began to patch things up with China in 1972, the Middle Kingdom spoke relentlessly of US “hegemonism” in melodramatic terms, much as Christian fundamentalists discuss Satan. But China greatly moderated its official rhetoric in the post-Nixon years, in part because the Beijing government came to realize that communism was not working as an economic system.

During Mao’s Great Leap Forward as many as thirty million Chinese may have died during the Great Famine, triggered largely by Mao’s misbegotten policies. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966, produced a near-total breakdown of society. By the early 1970s, China was effectively bankrupt. The solution: the initiation of a policy of free enterprise with “Chinese characteristics”—or as Deng Xiaoping declared, “To get rich is glorious!”

The changes in China over the past couple of decades have been dizzying. Although hundreds of millions of peasants in rural areas barely make it from day to day, the boom in the coastal cities as well as in many inland cities continues to be as astonishing as anything Deng could have imagined. What citizen of Chicago or New York, where skyscrapers were invented, can view the outrageous yet weirdly beautiful skyline of Shanghai’s “Pudong New Area” without experiencing a moment or two of slack-jawed awe?

The Chinese government may be corrupt and repressive, but it is not collectively stupid. China learned a live-or-die lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union: in a direct arms competition with the United States, the United States wins. The Soviet Union sought to create an alternate universe, a socialist paradise with Muscovite characteristics. It failed. In contrast, China has chosen, cautiously, to join the global community, and it expects the payback for that will be at least a modest degree of national prosperity.

Does China actively seek to initiate a space arms race with the United States? Why would it? Manufacturing consumer goods for export to the West drives China’s booming economy and provides employment for tens of millions in a nation in which systemic unemployment is at dangerously high levels. A Cold War-style arms race would sap China’s economic vitality by diverting huge amounts of capital from manufacturing consumer goods for the international market to China’s arms industries, thus threatening China’s main business, the Wal-Marting of America.

That Red China and capitalist America are now bedmates in the economic sphere is a fact that few American politicians, Democrat or Republican, care to fully acknowledge. China needs US consumers, the biggest single market for Made in China products, and American consumers seem comfortable with that. “The China Price,” which denotes the lowest possible cost for manufactured goods, is now part of the American business lexicon.

A quid pro quo relationship has developed between Washington and Beijing. Washington is generally OK with the idea that China will continue to supply inexpensive products to US consumers; in turn, China helps finance the growing US national debt by buying hundreds of billions of dollars of low-interest US treasuries that investors in the United States no longer covet.

China is the Great Enabler that supplies the opium for America’s budget-deficit addiction. The curious relationship between Beijing and Washington—that they share a common economic bed—is a strange tale. Stranger still is the real possibility that a major downturn in either economy could lead to economic chaos in the other. If one nation drowns in an economic maelstrom, the other could be pulled down with it.

The Chinese are coming

Is China the Next Great Threat? The US stance under Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush has been agnosticism tempered by suspicion. There have been differences in emphasis, to be sure. The elder Bush, and especially Clinton, pursued policies of engagement with China; George W. Bush, influenced by neoconservatives, triumphalists, and certain Christian activists to whom the Chinese government is a continuing moral affront, has tilted more toward Taiwan.

If presidential administrations tend toward agnosticism regarding the “Chinese threat,” America’s space warriors seem to have little difficulty expressing their opinion. The Chinese are coming, they say, and we’re not prepared. Space warriors regularly spin out imaginative wake-up scenarios in which the United States is bested in space by a combination of Chinese technical sophistication and audaciously clever Sun-tzu-style deception.

Consider the intriguing China-oriented scenario offered in 2002 by Simon P. Worden, then director of development and transformation at Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center, and Major John E. Shaw, a historian of space power. Worden has long been a major player in the space-warrior world.

The scenario, embodied in a monograph titled Whither Space Power? Forging a Strategy for the New Century, begins in May 2003 and ends in 2075, a time span that hints at its intricacy. A central episode is a Pearl Harbor-style strike on US space assets on December 7, 2031.

Many years later, according to the scenario, Tu Yu, the chief space marshal of the Asian Hegemony (China along with Vietnam, Korea, and Japan), recalls that wondrous day. It had been preceded by years of canny misdirection designed “to encourage the uniquely Western idea that the absence of war is peace.” When the Chinese-led attack came (aided by China’s Islamic friends), it was a classic bolt from the blue.

The United States and its “imperialist” allies, blinded and confused by the loss of their eyes and ears in space (not to mention having been thoroughly befuddled by the demise of many of their space-based weapons), quickly capitulated. The peace treaty, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, stipulated that the United States would assume “full responsibility for the war of 2031 and admits to having served as the primary instrument of imperialist expansion in the twenty-first century.” The United States also agreed to pay reparations of $5 trillion for “past imperialist damages to oppressed peoples.”

A grim scenario, at least for those of us who live in the West. But be of good cheer. Determined not to leave their readers too depressed, Worden and Shaw spin out a Superwoman scenario (subtitled “Seizing the Solar System”) in which retired US space force officers, led by former Aerospace Force Chief of Staff Maria Barbicane (Jules Verne would applaud), eventually win back space for the United States and its allies.

The five ironies

It is a schizophrenic and ironic future, isn’t it? China persists in underwriting America’s instant-gratification lifestyle by exporting cheap consumer goods to the United States while financing a substantial part of the US national debt by buying hundreds of billions of dollars of treasuries; and yet China is systematically portrayed by America’s hardliners and space warriors as the Next Great Threat.

Another irony: In its continuing enthusiasm for buying Treasury notes, China helps underwrite the further development of America’s high-tech way of precision war. That is distinctly odd behavior for a nation presumed to be prepping for a High Noon showdown with the United States.

A third irony: China is intent on integrating itself into the global economic system—strange behavior indeed for a nation that is regularly depicted by American hardliners and space warriors as a profound military threat to the United States and, by extension, to the Western World and Japan.

A fourth irony: China has long been the lead player in the global effort to negotiate a ban on all space-related weapons, not just weapons of mass destruction. That inconvenient fact is seldom mentioned by Air Force Space Command, by the Pentagon, by the White House, by hardline think tanks, by cable-news pundits, by America-first newspaper triumphalists, or by the assortment of neoconservatives determined to eliminate evil empires everywhere.

A final irony. Because of its ill-advised, ham-fisted, debris-producing antisatellite test in January 2007, China—the presumptive champion of a new and more comprehensive space weapons treaty—shot itself in its collectivized foot.

A mind experiment

Why did China conduct that test? Political science realists talk endlessly of the “security dilemma,” a zero-sum business in which a state that becomes extraordinarily powerful is seen by other states as diminishing their own security, thus prompting fear-driven countervailing reactions.

Realists have a point. The desire to enjoy freedom of action in world affairs is not a uniquely American aspiration. Governments, whether democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, monarchical, or theocratic, do not want to be hemmed in; they want to maximize their own freedom of action vis-à-vis other states.

In a world based on the principle that nations are sovereign entities, an American decision to develop and deploy a unilateral space-control capability would raise troubling questions regarding the meaning of sovereignty. It would be regarded by many states as an intolerable violation of global norms—and of their sovereignty.

And yet, the United States regularly speaks of how it intends to develop the doctrine and the hardware to militarily “control” space, when necessary. That is heavy-duty space-control rhetoric. A mind experiment: Imagine America’s reaction if the folks in Beijing had used similar rhetoric regarding space. One can almost hear a president telling the nation in a televised speech, “This outrage, this violation of international law and custom, this insult to the peoples of the world, this tyranny of the heavens, shall not stand.”

Why would we expect the leaders of other great and powerful nations, including China, to feel differently about an apparent American determination to develop the means to control space? Space dominance, whether by the United States or by any other nation, would violate the democratic ideal of the rule of law as expressed in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which the United States championed and pushed to fruition. The treaty embodied the view that space was “the province of all mankind” and should be used for “peaceful purposes.”

“He who controls space controls the Earth” is an assertion that began popping up a half century ago in the wake of Sputnik. The assertion is not intuitively false; indeed, it is widely believed by ordinary people. What would we Americans do if we thought another state—say China—was about to develop and deploy a comprehensive space-control capability and, possibly, place weapons in space?

For one thing, you can bet that we would send a “signal,” as diplomats like to put it, to the Chinese. Perhaps we would damage or destroy an aging American satellite with one of our new robotic seek-and-find satellites. (Yes, we are way ahead of the Chinese and everyone else in that particular technology, which could be used to attack satellites without producing a debris field.)

I have no inside information as to why the Chinese smashed their own satellite in January 2007. Maybe it was, as American hardliners suggest, a clear-cut challenge to the United States that said, “We are out of the closet and taking you on.” Or, as some think, the PLA may have been blindly doing what militaries everywhere sometimes do—botching things up without considering the possible geopolitical consequences.

Or perhaps the Chinese were sending us a signal. For years they, along with the Russians, have been urging the United States to get serious about a negotiating a treaty that would ban all space-related weapons. The United States has consistently dissed them by saying there was no need for such a treaty. Given that, the Chinese test may have been a classic “shot across the bow.” It may have said that although the Middle Kingdom wants to negotiate a new space treaty with the United States, it also stands ready to challenge an attempt by the United States to apply full spectrum dominance to space.

All of the world’s spacefaring nations, including China, say they favor a new space treaty. Most really mean it. But do China and Russia mean it? Or is it just a crowd-pleasing ploy? It is time to call their bluff. Let’s begin negotiations. We are so far ahead of everyone else in the military uses of space, we could afford to spend a few years in serious negotiations. If it becomes apparent after two or three years that the Chinese and Russians were just posturing, we will have learned something important.

But if treaty talks make real progress, the nation and the world would benefit. In a century in which nations face a myriad of serious global problems that require multilateral solutions, the world does not need a Cold War-style arms race in which space dominance would be the goal.