Conceptual models and China’s missile test

February 5, 2007

Reading through Allison’s “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” I found myself wondering how the recent Chinese missile test to destroy a satellite would fit into his framework. The action was provocative since it came amid growing concerns about China’s military intentions. But was it supposed to be provocative? There has been some speculation that the test was a deliberate policy aimed at pressuring the United States to negotiate a ban on weapons in space, something that Beijing has been pushing for for some time. This explanation would appear to place the move in the rational policy construct; China made a top-down decision with a clear objective in the belief that the outcome would be to China’s advantage.

However, it seems to me that there is also a convincing case for placing the action within the organizational process model. Perhaps the test was conducted as part of the Chinese military’s ongoing and acknowledged efforts to develop systems that would disrupt US capabilities, in a war over Taiwan, for example. Perhaps the diplomatic fallout didn’t figure in the military’s calculations. A New York Times article (IHT, Jan 22, 2007) shortly after the test looked at how US officials were puzzling over why Chinese officials had been so slow to respond to US protests over the test. The article said that an unusual lack of information from Chinese officials following the test “raised the possibility that top officials were either intentionally provoking the United States with their silence, or that the test was conducted without the full involvement of the one official who has authority to coordinate the military and civilian bureaucracies: Hu (Jintao).” It seems odd that China would deliberately set out to provoke the United States at a time when relations have been getting increasingly cordial, so that second proposition seems worth considering.

I’d be interested in hearing what you all think. Was the test the result of momentum within the vast Chinese military machine (in line with Allison’s construct of government behavior being “the result of outputs of large organizations”) or was it a rational policy on the part of the Chinese leadership?


5 Responses to “Conceptual models and China’s missile test”

  1. anniesmho Says:

    “Space security” is of quite high priority in China’s security agenda. It seems to me that the recent missile test to destroy the old satellite did mean to demonstrate to U.S. China’s ability to protect and defend its “territory” including that in the outer space. It intended to pass on a strong message to the U.S. that China possesses the technology to advanced military space operations which would help to expand its influence in the region.

    It did look provocative in many ways and I believe it is a rational policy. I personally think it is important for China to do so because balance of power should be maintained not only on the earth but also in the outer space which has long been monopolized by U.S., Russia.

  2. philipm Says:

    The idea of a balance of power in space is a very interesting one. This article on space debris (sorry for the shameless plugging of my own newspaper, btw) makes me wonder if there’s going to be any territory to claim up there in a few years.

  3. O C Lin Says:

    I have quite a different view as compared with the one shared by Annie. If the Chinese government did mean to improve its capability in military defences, the Chinese side will be more likely to act quitely without alarming her competitors. If the Chinese government did mean to pose a threat to other countries, a much more impressive showing of muscle would have been made.

    Taken the current political situation in China, e.g. the arrest of the Party Secretary of Shanghai, into context, I believe the recent missle test was a result of some political power struggle in China. Its likely that Chairman Hu Jintao was not fully informed in the test and the disclosure of the incident was to make Hu’s life difficult.

  4. G. Daniel Says:

    I find OC comments interesting but if this was the case it would certainly highlights some interesting dynamic and tension inside the PRC government. More in line with the idea of balance of power I would suggest that the Chinese test was indeed a logical answer to US plan to further militarize space. In this respect the Chinese slow answer to US protest might have come to their surprise of receiving a protest. We might be witnessing a perfect example of Jervis notion of “Misperception”. When the US refused to negotiate the military use of space some months ago the PRC could have understood it as “for space, everything goes”. In which case the untold rule would be that anything done in space is of no real consequences.

  5. lmcinhk Says:

    Dear all —

    I didn’t assign this piece, but since we’ve gotten into this discussion, I suggest that those who are persuaded by Allison’s analysis read Stephen D. Krasner’s “Are Bureaucracies Important? (Or Allison Wonderland),” Foreign Policy (7: Summer,1972)– HKU students can access it through HKU library Jstor. In it, Krasner argues (persuasively, in my view) that while bureaucratic constraints and politics are helpful in making sense of how policies are implemented, they are not determinative in explaining foreign policy formulation. Bad policies are due to miscalculations, poorly chosen objctives, and or to flawed leadership values, not bureaucratic inertia

    — LMC

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