Friday, January 19, 2007

Oh, lovely. China can shoot down satellites now.

The newspapers are reporting that China shot down one of its old weather satellites last week with a ground-launched missile, something only the US and the former Soviet Union had managed to do until then. The satellite was in orbit about 500 miles up.

As a grad student in Chinese Classics back in the early 1970s, the Mandarin learned an important lesson about China from an old professor. The professor, referring to the year the Mongols conquered China, said: “Remember, young Mandarin, in China, everything after 1280 is journalism.” China takes a very long view of history and the place of “the present” in history. What happened yesterday or last week may not ring the kind of alarm bells for them that we hear in the West.

So, keeping in mind that “too soon to tell” has a long fuse in China, there are a couple of worrisome points to consider. One is the threat from such a weapon in China’s active arsenal, and the other is the threat of future sales of that weapon to others. Iran comes to mind.

China’s military forces are large, but generally regarded to be poorly equipped, at least when compared to first-world forces like ours or Britain’s. A lot of our military advantage is based on advanced technology. A missile that can shoot down our spy or communication satellites would be an effective way to partially blind our theater forces and make the battlefield more level for the Chinese, with millions of infantrymen fixing their bayonets. Public information sources suggest the elliptical orbits of our recon satellites have maximum and minimum altitudes of about 600 and 160 miles respectively. So a missile like the one the Chinese fired is right in that ballpark.

China is thought to export about $1 billion in arms a year, though sophisticated weapons may not make up a large portion of that. Chinese weapons performed poorly during the Gulf war, which hurt their reputation. In the particular case of Iran, however, China has been a major supplier of missiles over the years, beginning with anti-ship cruise missiles like the NY-2 Silkworm in the 1980s and the newer C-801 and C-802 in the 1990s.

More disturbing have been China’s sales of ballistic missiles to Iran, including an export model (the M-11) of their famous Dongfeng 東風 (“East Wind”) series. Now, admittedly, these aren’t the ICBMs that had many of us early-cohort Baby Boomers hiding under our wooden school desks back in the late 1950s. They have a maximum range of less than 400 miles. The point is that Iran is a long-time client of China’s missile sales force, and with China’s demand for petroleum, especially motor gasoline, soaring, the banker in me sees an obvious deal lurking in there somewhere.

And, don’t forget that Pakistan has a long history of writing big checks for China’s latest models of export missiles as well, so the plot in that whole neck of the woods could definitely thicken.

As the new Congress settles down to business, it will also be interesting to see if this somehow percolates into the Congressional debate, but -- as the Mandarin said -- it is “too soon to tell.”

Unless of course, the Chinese missiles pop a couple of our GPS satellites and then millions of Americans in SUVs, wandering around lost and low on gas with their fancy $2,000 navigation units on the fritz, pull over at the next payphone and call their Congressmen to complain.

Footnote: The Mandarin just took a quick peek at the mainland Chinese-language blogosphere, and an unscientific impression was that the hits on “satellite” (卫星) and “missile” (飞弹) were dwarfed by the ongoing tizzy over a Starbucks cafe in the Forbidden City.

Cross-posted at The Mandarin.