Jeffrey LewisWhy'd They Do It?

Gregory Kulacki and I are giving a talk about the Chinese ASAT test at the Carnegie Endowment. Short version: There is no message for us.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace invites you to attend

A Different View of China’s ASAT Test


Gregory Kulacki
Senior Analyst and China Project Manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Jeffrey Lewis
Director of the New America Foundation’s Nuclear Strategy Initiative

Dr. Kulacki and Dr. Lewis will discuss the decisions that led to China’s January 2007 test of an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) against one of its own satellites. Although most American analysts placed the United States at the center of Chinese calculations, either by asserting that the test is part of a deliberate effort to acquire a comprehensive set of counter-space capabilities or an attempt to induce the United States into arms control negotiations, Kulacki and Lewis argue that American commentators tend to overstate the importance of the United States as a driver in China’s decision to develop hit-to-kill technology and conduct the test. Dr Kulacki and Dr. Lewis traveled to China several times in the past eight months to discuss China’s ASAT test with colleagues in the arms control and defense science communities, including individuals who have knowledge of the history of the ASAT program and access to information about the decision-making process prior to and after the final test on January 11, 2007.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007
3:00 to 4:30 p.m.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036

Please RSVP to Teri Grimwood at the Union of Concerned Scientists at tgrimwood [AT]


  1. dylan

    You’d have more credibility in this analysis if history didn’t show that you have consistently got it wrong about Chinese ASAT progress and intentions, no matter what ‘inside sources’ from China have told you.

    Do posts 155 and 707 on this blog ring any bells, or the article on claiming the DoD was making up evidence of a Chinese ASAT programme?

  2. China Hand (History)

    are you going to post a summary of your remarks? I’d be interested to see it

  3. Mark Gubrud

    That is a nice bit of triangulation which no doubt adds to your credibility as an inside-track guy at the New Administration Foundation.

    However, I fail to see how anyone can seriously maintain that China’s ASAT development and their decision to conduct the test, particularly in such as spectacularly “irresponsible” way, was not closely tied to America’s policy of,

    1) Pursuing the world’s most aggressive, technically sophisticated, multi-modal program of space warfare preparations, including ASAT or “space control” hardware development and testing, in the form of ground-based and air-based lasers with active compensation, ground-based ASAT-capable “missile defenses,” and especially maneuvering microsatellites for flexible inspection, interference, and negation missions; and

    2) Continuing research and maintenance of a policy threatening a vast expansion of space weaponization through space-based ASAT-capable “missile defenses” and space-based strike weapons; and

    3) Refusing to enter any discussion or negotiations of space arms control as repeatedly proposed by Russia and China with the endorsement of nearly the entire world community; and

    4) Declaring an obnoxious new policy asserting unilateral American rights in space.

    Which is to say nothing of the American war machine’s arming of Taiwan and encouraging its more belligerent elements, while simultaneously painting China as a future “peer competitor” and likely military enemy of the United States.

    No message for us? Give me a break.

  4. Caitlin Talmadge (History)

    Jeffrey, When you have time will you post a bit more on this? Would love to see an outline of the talk or a transcript.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Well, Mark, when you talk to program managers and they don’t make any of those points, it’s a little hard to conclude otherwise.

    By the way, if I were in the habit of lying about what I think to get better jobs, I’d be a hell of a lot more successful than I am.

  6. Mark Gubrud

    Jeffrey, Chinese program managers may not make the very obvious points that I listed. That’s not their job, and it might be dangerous for them to say such things. In the wake of the test, and worldwide reaction to it, Chinese policy has not been to blame the US and thereby reinforce perceptions that the test was aimed at America or our satellites.

    I know that some people have argued (maybe Gregory would have something to say here) that the Chinese program was on some kind of automatic pilot, senior decisionmakers were uninformed about the likely consequences of conducting the test, and the Foreign Ministry may have been out of the loop entirely. I don’t buy any of that, particularly not on the basis of fragmentary evidence.

    I think it is absurd to suppose that the decision to conduct this test was not carefully weighed by people very aware of the factors I mentioned; and even if this were not the case, given that China would have entered negotiation with us on a space weapons ban many years ago had we been willing, I don’t see how you can plausibly claim there is no connection with US policy. If our policies had been different, this test would not have taken place.

    Now, I didn’t accuse you of lying, but I do see apparent triangulation here, in that you take what you present as a middle, neutral position between hawks who claim China is preparing a Space Pearl Harbor and doves like me who lay the blame on 20 years of US space war policy ranging from malign neglect to rabid aggression. However, the claim that other nations pursue their own interests independently of anything the United States does is actually a typical right-wing, anti-arms control canard.

  7. Anon

    Mark, you write: “If our policies had been different, this test would not have taken place.”

    In other words, US policy was not merely a necessary but also a sufficent condition; US policy caused the Chinese to decide to test their ASAT system.

    How do you know this, Mark? Can you actually cite evidence that isn’t circumstantial or, in your own words, “fragmentary”?

    You’ve certainly offered a plausible hypothesis, but you have no evidence from the Chinese side to support this hypothesis.

    Of course Chinese military planners think about the choices we and others make as they plan. That’s not controversial. But to infer that US policy caused the Chinese ASAT test without any evidence from the Chinese side is, well, a stretch.

    To be frank, what you’ve written sounds like the typical, left-wing MADvocate canard that used to circulate in the 70s and 80s, that uses an “it stands to reason”-type mirroring analysis to understand the decision-making of the Soviets. But as SECDEF Harold Brown admitted to a joint meeting of House/Senate budget committees in 1979, “Soviet spending has shown no response to U.S. restraint—when we build they build; when we cut they build.”

    It’s possible, as Jeffrey now argues, that the Chinese tested the ASAT for largely internal reasons. It appears that Dr. Lewis has, at the very least, talked privately with Chinese managers, and found evidence to support his inference.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I believe “now” basically the same thing I did when I spoke to Michael Gordon, although I think my understanding is a little more nuanced. I’ve always doubted that US decisions, although they may factor in internal Chinese deliberations, are decisive. (In this case, I think it was the technological maturity of the program that was decisive.)

    That said, we do have the ability to shape Chinese reactions — I think had we firmly communicated our displeasure after one of the fly-by tests, or been talking in Geneva, or not have issued the national space policy, then the Chinese leadership might — might — have been less swayed by arguments that this test would not result in a significant international reaction. But I would distinguish between that kind of cost-benefit analysis from more enduring actor preferences, worldviews and bureaucratic imperatives.

    Mark refers to Gregory Kulacki — my co-author — but neither he nor I think that senior decisionmakers were uninformed about the likely consequences of conducting the test or that the Foreign Ministry was “out of the loop.”

    In fact, we think it was “carefully weighed” — the exact phrase from our paper is “carefully vetted, with the full participation of other stakeholders, including representatives of the Foreign Ministry” — but that the senior leadership made a poor decision . The difference, I suppose, is that where Mark is a space guy who sees the test as a very big deal, the Chinese leadership is filled with people who think about space seldom, if ever. That’s our point — that the defense and national security community privileges its issues in its models of the deliberations of senior officials. I still remember reading Clinton and Qian Qichen’s memoirs, only to be shocked that Clinton mentioned it only in passing as (if I recall correctly) a political issue and Qian not at all. This is the same phenomenon. In contrast to Mark, I think it would be absurd to assume that the people making the decision were as well versed in these issues as he is.

    Okay, I have to get back to triangulating so I can get that job in the Giuliani Administration.

  9. Mark Gubrud

    Anon: I don’t think what I said amounts to a claim that “US policy was not merely a necessary but also a sufficent condition” for the Chinese to test an ASAT, but rather, the much weaker claim that a different US policy would have prevented the test, and in any case that the assertion of no connection between US policy (as I described it) and the Chinese decision is implausible.

    Rather, I think you are making too strong a claim if you dispute my assertion that “If our policies had been different, this test would not have taken place.” Do you really think it is plausible to suppose that this test would have taken place in spite of any change in US policy, such as a willingness to enter into negotiations for a space weapons convention or at least a moratorium on testing of defined classes of ASAT-capable technologies?

    My evidence is the basic facts which we here all know about the American space war program. My only assumption is that the final decisionmakers in China aren’t as oblivious as Jeffrey and Gregory seem to be claiming they are.

    Also, the quote you cite from Harold Brown was spin. Particularly in regard to strategic nuclear weapons, we built first, the Soviets built second.

  10. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    This is LTR in Giuliani disguise here (haven’t removed it since Halloween).

    If you really want a job in the Giuliani administration, you will have to start off as my driver, and then go through a first step like cleaning up the Guantanamo Bay problem as the Warden, then maybe I will have you drive me home one nite, ask you to come in for wine, and then ask you to take the post of Secretary of Defense. Everyone in my inner cabinet will be downstairs in the White House Basement ready to kiss you once you accepted.

    You really want to keep triangulating?

    Oh…in the mean time, keep on good terms with Judith… or whoever my next squeeze is.