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Mysterious Chinese Silence On Its “Space Feat”

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Till the time of writing of this article (5-30 PM on January 22, 2007), the Chinese authorities have not yet confirmed that they did destroy on January 11, 2007, one of their old weather satellites (Fengyun 1 C) with a missile fired from the ground. Why this silence since they should have known that the destruction of the satellite by a missile fired from the ground cannot remain a secret? Were they not aware of the dangers that could arise from the innumerable space debris caused by the destruction? If they were aware, why they did not alert the rest of the international community? If they had alerted, nobody could have forced them to give up their attempt.

2. Does the Chinese silence indicate that it was a rogue operation by the Chinese military and scientists without informing the political leadership? If it was, does this indicate that President Hu Jintao does not as yet have total control over the armed forces despite his being the Chairman of the Central Military Commission?

3. Only the US and Russia—more the US than Russia— have the capability to detect such an exercise by China—-at least after the event, if not simultaneously with it. Almost all the information the world has had on the event has come from American sources. All that one knows for certain is that Fengyun 1 C, whose orbit was being tracked by the space organisations of many countries—more particularly by the US’ North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD)— disappeared from its usual 542-mile-high orbit at 5-30 PM on January 11, which was 6-30 AM Beijing time on January 12, 2007. Before its disappearance from its usual orbit, it was reported to have been tracked five times on January 11, 2007, by the tracking stations of many countries.

4. Its disappearance could have been due to only three causes— an internal explosion causing its disintegration; or an accidental collision with a meteorite or other space debris; or a deliberate exercise by the Chinese authorities to test their anti-satellite capability. Till now, the speculation has been that its disintegration was caused as part of a deliberate exercise by the Chinese authorities.

5. In the past—20 years ago— the then USSR and the US had successfully caused the disintegration of their satellites in orbit as part of an exercise to test and prove their anti-satellite capability. The USSR used a killer satellite for this purpose—that is, it fired another satellite into orbit and maneuvered it into position in order to collide with the target satellite and cause its disintegration. The US did so with a missile fired from one of its aircraft. The USSR had never tried to achieve this with a missile fired from the ground and guided towards a satellite. The US had tried, but reportedly failed.

6. The speculation—based on information from American sources— is that the Chinese caused the destruction through a missile fired and guided from the ground— a feat, which no other country has so far achieved. If true, it speaks highly of the Chinese scientific capability. How did the Americans come to this conclusion? Were they able to detect the firing of the Chinese missile and track it till it destroyed the old weather satellite? Probably so, but they would not admit it lest it gives a clue to others about their detection capability.

7. India has reasons to be concerned—not because the Chinese anti-satellite capability poses a direct threat to India, but because the successful Chinese test, if true, shows how far ahead of India are the Chinese in their scientific and technological capabilities. India is far, far lagging behind the Chinese in almost every field— whether it be economic development or modernisation of its armed forces or its space and missile capabilities or even sports. The Chinese have a very, very lucid understanding of what is in their national interest and are prepared to achieve their objectives whatever be the price—material or diplomatic. They are not bothered about what the US or the rest of the world would think of their action.

8. Once they are convinced that a certain thing is necessary in their national interest, they keep moving towards it like a homing pigeon. Indian leadership, policy-makers and the so-called strategic analysts—who are a bunch of wishful thinkers— lack such a lucid understanding and a steely determination. Look at the editorial on the Chinese feat carried by the “Indian Express”, whose author anybody can identify. What does he want ?—that India should catch up with China by collaborating with the US. As if the US is waiting impatiently to help us catch up with China technologically!

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

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