The Chinese ASAT Test — Nine Years Later

The Chinese ASAT Test — Nine Years Later

Nine years ago today China conducted a test of an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon against one of its own satellites, creating more than 3,000 pieces of space debris and earning international condemnation.  A State Department official today credited U.S. diplomacy as one factor in leading China to avoid such debris-generating tests since then.

Mallory Stewart, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Emerging Security Challenges and Defense Policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance spoke at the Atlantic Council today at an event marking the anniversary of the 2007 ASAT test.   Stewart noted that China has conducted additional ASAT tests in the intervening years, but none that created “what some have conservatively estimated to be one-sixth of the existing radar trackable debris” in Earth orbit.

The consequences of the 2007 test, which will endanger satellites for decades to come, catalyzed U.S. and international efforts to ensure that the space domain is not ruined by irresponsible actions and remains usable for future generations — what has become known as space sustainability.  

Stewart credited the “huge international outcry” and diplomatic initiatives by the United States and others to “inspire responsible behavior in space” as factors in convincing China to avoid debris-generating ASAT tests since then.  She did not specify what those additional Chinese ASAT tests were, but the State Department publicly criticized China for a 2013 test and experts believe there have been others.  The Secure World Foundation has a fact sheet listing them.

She also said that China may have realized its mistake since it has had to maneuver its own satellites to avoid the debris.  Just as the United States and Soviet Union learned first-hand about the consequences of debris-generating ASAT tests during the Cold War, China may have as well and thus chosen a course of  “strategic restraint” in finding other ways to conduct such tests. 

Another catch phrase that has taken hold since the Chinese ASAT test is space situational awareness — the need for better knowledge about where everything is in orbit and, for maneuverable satellites, where they are going.  Early in the Obama Administration, State Department and Defense Department officials began describing space as “congested, contested and competitive.”  Today Stewart joked that the government “loves” alliteration and discussions about the “three Cs” are meant to prevent the “three Ms” — “miscommunication, misperception and miscalculation.”

The State Department engages in bilateral space security dialogues with a number of countries, Stewart recounted, along with multilateral efforts to develop norms for responsible behavior in space.  For several years, the latter activity took place in part under the rubric of development of an “international code of conduct.”  That effort faltered at a United Nations meeting last summer, but Stewart asserted that it laid the groundwork for “subsequent clarity and work on additional principles” everyone could agree on.

Defining terms was one of the challenges in those discussions, she explained. 

What constitutes a “space weapon” has been debated for decades.  President Jimmy Carter opened negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit the development of space weapons in the 1970s, but the Soviets wanted to categorize the space shuttle as a weapon, for example.   

Stewart remains optimistic that, over time, consensus can be reached leading eventually to a treaty, “but what we don’t want to do is jump into a treaty headlong” without understanding the definitions and ensuring it is verifiable.

Involving the commercial sector is critical, she said.   It is a “collaboration that has to work” to establish norms of responsible behavior in space effectively.

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