What China's Missile Test Means for Taiwan

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The Chinese missile launched Jan. 11 from Xichang Space Center was aimed at the Feng Yun 1C, a Chinese meteorological satellite drifting 535 miles above the Earth. But the strike — which smashed the seven-year-old orbiter into a cloud of space flotsam — may also have been directed at a target closer at hand. Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, has long been the object of the mainland's saber-rattling missile tests and amphibious-assault war games. The demonstration of an ability to destroy satellites in orbit — belatedly confirmed by Beijing this week — could mean China is ready to up the stakes. "Symbolically, it's quite an important message to send to Taiwan," says Andrew Yang, secretary general of Taiwan's Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies and an expert on cross-Straits relations.

To Taiwanese military experts, the message seems clear: that the island can no longer rely on the U.S. and its military and technological might to protect it from Chinese forces. Lin Chong-pin, president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies and a former deputy defense minister, points to the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1996, when escalating tensions prompted the U.S. to send two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region in an attempt to defuse the situation. In a similar scenario today, Lin says, China's ability to destroy satellites would reduce the effectiveness of U.S. forces, which rely heavily on them for real-time battlefield data. "Now China has the capability to knock out the eyes in the heaven for the U.S.," Lin says.

That could be a huge problem for the U.S. if the simmering conflict over Taiwan ever boils over. "The Chinese understand how dependent the Americans are on these spy satellites," says John Pike, a satellite expert with GlobalSecurity.org. "And they understand how easy it is to shoot them down." A strike against intelligence-gathering satellites, he theorizes, would likely be China's first move in any military action against Taiwan. "If the Chinese are to have any hope of grabbing Taiwan while nobody is looking, they have to win quickly," Pike says. "They have to present the Americans with an accomplished fact. Surely their strategy is, one day they'll come out of one of these amphibious exercises, and it will be for real. The destruction of satellites would be the first unambiguous sign it's happening."

Still, the missile test may yet prove a strategic blunder for the mainland, argues Kurt Campbell, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former top-level U.S. defense department official. "The fundamental principle of China's foreign policy for the last three or four years has been to do nothing that will alert the world to China's arrival as a world power," Campbell says. The test, while sending a clear signal to Taiwan about China's capabilities, may also embolden American neoconservatives who want the U.S. to aggressively challenge China's military and economic ascendancy. China itself has remained notably circumspect: after keeping mum for nearly two weeks, a foreign ministry spokesman finally confirmed the test on Jan. 23 — although he insisted that the government remains opposed to an arms race in space. Those disinclined to trust China's protestations might cite "Space War," a 2001 book by Chinese colonel and miltiary academic Lee Ta-kawang, which argues that "The essential principle of war in the 21st century is to achieve victory through space."