American intelligence agencies knew about China’s anti-satellite missile test before it took place, according to a report in the New York Times. However, the Bush administration chose not to say anything until the test was completed.
“I think it is fair to say that nobody knows whether the Chinese would have deferred or canceled the test. The principals’ best judgment, including the leadership of the intelligence community, was that they were committed to testing the anti-satellite weapon,” an administration official is quoted as saying.
This can be justified by all kinds of “we didn’t want them to know that we know what they know” arguments. There is also merit in the official’s explanation that China would have proceeded with the test regardless of any word from Washington.
But these revelations do throw into a new light China’s post-test protestations that it is against the militarization of space.
Had the US approached China before the test, offering talks on a space weapons ban in exchange for a stand down, what would have happened?
Had it gone ahead with the test, Beijing probably wouldn’t have got away with a two-week wait before offering official confirmation. And its claims of peaceful intent would have faced even more skepticism if news leaked that it had rejected talks in order to proceed with the test.
But would China ever have considered calling the whole thing off? Probably not. Beijing may have talked about a treaty banning weapons in space but this didn’t hinder the development of its anti-satellite program – which is supposedly there to enable the obstruction of US military operations in the event of a confrontation over Taiwan.
The world, knowing that China had proceeded despite requests that it desist, would simply have created a slightly worse international PR crisis than the one that emerged.