Earlier this year, when China blasted one of its satellites into thousands of little floating pieces, it was condemned by Washington as a provocative act.
But some arms-control experts believe Beijing was baring its teeth to send the White House a different message. They say that China, which has consistently opposed the weaponization of space, is hoping to negotiate an arms treaty that would rein in both nations’ growing arsenal of so-called "space weapons."
Just days later, on Jan. 27, Beijing seemingly had its answer. On the western shore of Hawaii’s Kauai Island, the U.S.’s ground-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, shot down a dummy ballistic missile over the southern Pacific as it skirted the edge of space roughly 110 kilometers high.
Analysts say the George W. Bush administration is turning its back on any new space weapons treaty because it would ground many parts of the U.S.’s emerging missile defense shield. One such treaty is PAROS, the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space a treaty China initiated at the United Nations in 1985 and has pressed for ever since.
The existing international regime, known as the Outer Space Treaty, entered into force in 1967 and critics who include experts like Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector say it is hopelessly outdated.
However, Washington has made it clear that the U.S. has no intention of endorsing new restrictions.
"Arms control is not a viable solution for space," a U.S. State Department official told Space News on Jan. 19. "For example, there is no agreement on how to define a space weapon. Without a definition you are left with loopholes and meaningless limitations that endanger national security."
Pentagon officials insist the U.S. is not seeking to put weapons in Earth’s orbit. Its space research, which is funneling billions to aerospace contractors such as Lockheed Martin, is strictly for defense, they say.
But arms control experts suggest that this rhetoric has failed to assuage China’s anxieties.
"So many defensive capabilities have inherent offensive applications as well," said Theresa Hitchens, a space weapons expert at the Center for Defense Information, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington.
China’s ASAT, or anti-satellite test, may have also been a response to the US’s new National Space Policy doctrine released in late 2006, wrote Hitchens in a recent issue of the Air Force’s High Frontier Journal.
The new "NSP" states: "The U.S. considers space capabilities vital to its national interests. The U.S. will preserve its freedom of action in space [and will] dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights, and take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities."
Hitchens says there is a more "aggressive tone inherent in this policy" and that it "rejects any limits on U.S. actions in space." She adds, "This strategy, this policy, more aggressively articulates a space war fighting strategy."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to intensify its focus on the Pacific Rim, where it has dispatched a very strange-looking, very high-tech ship.
The vessel is actually a revamped oil-drilling platform, and centered on its top, roughly 20 stories above the ocean, is its most striking feature — a white globe so immense it could engulf the middle of a soccer field.
Hidden inside the inflated white ball is the clue to this ship’s ultimate mission: A radar dish so powerful it can decipher a real ballistic missile from a dummy missile, claims the U.S. military.
The vessel is actually a new and important piece in the growing arsenal that is the US’s missile defense program, which is now run by the MDA, or Missile Defense Agency. Some have dubbed the agency the "Son of Star Wars," a 1980s-era program to deploy missiles in space, and the strange ship is the MDA’s billion-dollar Sea Based X-Band Radar.
Last year, the Sea Based X-Band Radar was witnessed off the coasts of Hawaii. It was taking part in an unknown number of missile defense tests, said the MDA. Space weapons experts suggest it could also decipher space debris from a "killer" micro-satellite.
Indeed, all sorts of missile defense tests are on the rise around the Islands, say Hawaiian peace activists, who believe they are intended to intimidate Asian "Tigers" such as China and North Korea.
"The increasing missile defense tests are a destabilizing factor," said Kyle Kajihiro, director of the Honolulu-based DMZ Hawaii. "The tests are provoking an arms race in the region between nuclear powers."
Since being recently relocated from a New Mexico desert, the MDA’s ground-based THAAD has a perfect "hit to kill" ratio.
But it is the ship-based "Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System" that is creating more tension for China. Since 2004, the MDA and the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor have launched missile-like "interceptors" to obliterate at least eight dummy ballistic missiles in space or in the atmosphere.
What is so unnerving for Beijing is that Japan has spent millions to arm several of its own battleships with this missile defense.
Ships with the "Aegis" technology have tremendous reach, say experts, thus exposing more satellites to a shoot-down. In Greek mythology, "Aegis" is the name of the shield used by Zeus.
The U.S. Air Force is also researching ground-based lasers. On a summit of Mount Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui, the Air Force helps run the Maui Space Surveillance Site. The military contends the site is for astronomical research, and has powerful telescopes that can detect rogue asteroids.
"I’m not buying any of it," said Kajihiro. Lasers that can "paint" satellites so to guide interceptors to their target are being tested there as well, he told IPS.
However, Greg Kulacki, an expert on the Chinese military at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the theory that China’s ASAT test was a call for a space-weapons arms treaty "is just not true."
Kulacki has spoken to Chinese scientists who work for the military’s defense labs. They told him the ASAT test was a "20-year-old end-result to an ASAT program that began in the mid-80s."
Even though China is spending more and more on its military, says Kulacki, Beijing no longer subscribes to the theory the U.S. may someday contain China’s growing thirst for oil by "choking off its sea lanes."
Nevertheless, many still believe U.S. forces positioned around China could deny its people resources in the event of war. And as missile defense tests are ramped-up in the Pacific, one expert says such tests makes many Chinese even more worried about the eagle’s shadow.
"The Chinese don’t like America’s offensive posture in the Pacific; they don’t like it one bit," says University of Hawaii professor Oliver M. Lee, who was born in Shanghai, and studies Sino-American relations.
He says most Chinese believe "the U.S. Navy controls the Pacific Ocean." They also feel that China’s military build-up is for defense. only, he says.
For the last several years, Lee, Kajihiro of DMZ Hawaii and many others have been fighting a plan by the Pentagon to bring 300 U.S. Army Strykers to the Islands.
The Stryker uproar reflects Hawaii’s internal debate over its militarization, says Kajihiro.
Why would the islands need hundreds of armored vehicles that are loaded with exotic weapons and also easily transported by plane?
"That’s the forty-thousand-dollar question," says Kajihiro. "We’ve asked that over and over again, and no good explanation was ever given."