The new Secretary of Defense calls it "troubling"; to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it is "very worrisome"; and Jon Kyl, the conservative Republican senator from Arizona, sees it as a "threat", a "provocation", and "a wake up call".
Since China's anti-satellite (ASAT) test on January 11, Washington has been abuzz with concern over what it tells us about the potential vulnerability of American space assets, Chinese military modernization, and Beijing's strategic intentions.
Is the test a shot across the bow of US military prowess and a warning about Taiwan? Perhaps.
After all, America's increasing military might and its reliance on spaced-based assets to project that power against weaker adversaries is a gap PRC strategists have long spoken of closing through "asymetrical" capabilities. The test just shows how it might be done.
Is it a crude attempt to cajole Washington into multilateral arms control negotiations, and thereby realize China's long-sought hope for a treaty banning weapons in space? Again, a possibility.
Chinese arms control specialists have been dropping hints for years that the US should avoid weaponizing space – Beijing includes the development of missile defenses in this – as China could easily pursue anti-satellite weapons in response.
But if these were behind the ASAT test, questions still persist: why now and why employ such an obviously hazardous method that could only tarnish China's carefully constructed image of a "peacefully rising" power?
Following the test, in what has been a Pekinologist's dream, debate raged among long-standing China watchers in and out of the government.
But the discussion quickly led to another interesting, equally disturbing, possibility: Beijing's right hand did not know what its left was doing.
More precisely, the highly secretive People's Liberation Army (PLA) – and its even more secretive Second Artillery unit, which was responsible for firing the missile – didn't consult with other parts of China's policy community on the international impact of the test. Or, if there was some level of deliberation, cautionary advice was either ignored or never offered.
It would not be the first time the PLA has acted as a kind of lone wolf.
As both the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001 and the SARS cover-up in 2003 showed, the PLA can be a powerful and impenetrable bureaucratic player. In the Leninist system running China today, information remains a much coveted commodity.
At times operating independently of civilian government, the PLA doesn't like to share.
All these possibilities are disturbing, and the absence of clarity makes them more so. In any event, as far as Washington is concerned, the damage is done. Prospective US-China space-related cooperation – put forward during the Bush-Hu summit in April 2006 and boosted by key personnel from each side visiting the other's space centers – is almost completely off the table at this point.
NASA now says: "China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the constructive relationship that our presidents have outlined."
On the defensive
Missile defenses and other potential high-tech solutions to protecting American (and other) satellites have gained new momentum. The Pentagon's report last year on PRC military modernization seems in retrospect to have erred in saying that China could only destroy or disable a satellite by using a nuclear-armed missile against it.
This most recent test probably surprised many and will call for more intensive scrutiny of China's space program and the search for possible countermeasures against threats it may pose. It will also strengthen the lobby calling for new high-tech export controls targeting China, with a particular impact on aerospace and IT products.
In a Congress already skeptical on both sides of the aisle about what kind of partner China can really be, expect an increasing drumbeat of concern in the months ahead.
Regardless of who knew what and how it was authorized, the goal of destroying a weather satellite was achieved. But the ASAT test was also on target in another unintended respect: it has got Washington scratching its head and seriously rethinking how to best deal with a rising China.
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