Paul Pillar

China's Junky Rise

A new report by the National Research Council warns that the problem of space junk in earth's orbit is on the verge of getting out of control. The more debris that is in orbit, the greater the chance of collisions that create more pieces of junk, which further increases the chance of still more collisions. So the situation may be near a “tipping point,” according to the authors of the study. There are now about 22,000 pieces of material in orbit that are big enough to track from the ground, and many more too small to track but also capable of damaging working satellites. The hazard to satellites is serious—including to the international space station, which has had to make some debris-dodging evasive maneuvers.

Two events have been by far the biggest producers of these pieces of debris. One wasn't really anyone's fault: a random collision in 2009 between a long-defunct Russian military spacecraft and an Iridium commercial communications satellite. The other was an intentional act by the government of China: a test in 2007 of an anti-satellite weapon. The Chinese used as the target for the test one of their own obsolete weather satellites. The test was a highly irresponsible act, conducted in the knowledge that, if successful, it would create a huge field of hazardous debris. It broke a twenty-year-old moratorium on debris-creating ASAT tests. U.S. intelligence reportedly provided good warning of the test, but U.S. policymakers decided to do nothing to head it off. They believed, probably correctly, that China was determined to conduct the test and that any preventive demarche would uselessly ruffle bilateral relations and perhaps reveal something about U.S. intelligence capabilities.

The ASAT test was the act of a rising power that was more concerned with sustaining the rise than with constructively using its power once it got to where it wanted to be. The Chinese considered developing and flaunting an ASAT capability to be an important element of military power. As China continues its rise, there will be further conflicts between accreting more power and performing a role as major stakeholder in the global commons. If China acts more responsibly the next time it faces such a trade-off, it will be an indication that it finally has accepted that role, which will represent an important attitudinal and policy transition. If it does not, even more of the global commons than low earth orbit will be in danger.