U.S. Wary of China, from Los Alamos to Orbit

A letter obtained by Reuters indicates that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace and custodian of America’s nuclear arsenal, has been removing Chinese-made data switches from its computer networks in response to congressional pressure. The components’ manufacturer, H3C, was originally a joint venture between Huawei and 3Com, and although now owned by Hewlett-Packard remains a “global strategic partner” of the Chinese electronics giant. A year-long investigation by the House intelligence committee concluded last October that Huawei posed a risk to U.S. national security, a charge the company vigorously rejects. From Reuters:

The discovery raises questions about procurement practices by U.S. departments responsible for national security. The U.S. government and Congress have raised concerns about Huawei and its alleged ties to the Chinese military and government. The company, the world’s second-largest telecommunications equipment maker, denies its products pose any security risk or that the Chinese military influences its business.

[…] William Plummer, Huawei’s vice president of external affairs in Washington, said in an email to Reuters: “There has never been a shred of substantive proof that Huawei gear is any less secure than that of our competitors, all of which rely on common global standards, supply chains, coding and manufacturing.

“Blackballing legitimate multinationals based on country of origin is reckless, both in terms of fostering a dangerously false sense of cyber-security and in threatening the free and fair global trading system that the U.S. has championed for the last 60-plus years.”

The Economist (via CDT) addressed the Huawei investigation in a pair of articles last August.

In another sign of American wariness, China was specifically excluded last week from the relaxation of export restrictions on communications satellites. From William J. Broad at The New York Times:

The strict export controls arose from a political fight over satellite launchings by China, which in the 1980s began offering cheap rides into orbit on low-cost rockets. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, both Republicans, approved transfers of American spacecraft to Chinese rockets, as did President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

Starting in early 1998, a series of upsets brought the expanding trade to a halt. Two American satellite makers involved in the Chinese launchings, Hughes and Loral, were accused of giving China advice about making not only commercial rockets, but also military missiles.

Republicans, who controlled Congress at the time, argued that satellite exports could lead to a hemorrhage of secret materials and information, and said that China might already have stolen encryption secrets.

China responded to its continued exclusion with “grave concern”. From Yang Jingjie at Global Times:

[… T]he relaxation of export controls shut China out by stipulating that no satellites or related items may be exported, re-exported or transferred to China, North Korea or any country that is a state sponsor of terrorism. It prohibits satellites or related items from being launched in those countries, and prohibits those countries from using these items in their launch vehicles. Only the president could waive the prohibition on a case-by-case basis.

In response, China expressed grave concern.

[…] “The Obama administration has made repeated promises to relax high-tech export controls. But it turns out that it has been the strictest,” Zhou Shijian, a senior researcher with the Center for US-China Relations at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.

The new rules proposed by some right-wing legislators have in fact labeled China as “an enemy” of the US, Zhou said, noting that even during the Cold War era, the US didn’t stop space cooperation with the former Soviet Union.

China’s satellite programmes, including its Beidou navigation system, do have significant military applications. But congress’ determination to block any cooperation with China in space also has critics in the U.S.: NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao urged a new Sino-American space partnership in 2011; Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell and Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College discussed the loss of “major opportunities” on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last June; and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Frank Klotz suggested in July that cooperation based on the U.S.-Russian model might better “serve long-term American interests”.

Currently, the absence of any established framework for cooperation is complicating Washington’s response to an anticipated Chinese anti-satellite weapon test, rumoured to be scheduled for January 11th. From Gregory Kulacki at the Union of Concerned Scientists:

High-level intervention in both countries is needed to stop the test and start discussions. Remarkably, there are no regular channels of communication on space issues between China and the United States. Congressional opposition to scientific and commercial cooperation with China in space shut down potential talks on human space flight that could have led to a bilateral dialog on space security.

[…] China’s space program is still in the formative stages of its development. Both the United States and the former Soviet Union conducted equally high profile ASAT testing during comparable stages in the development of their space programs, and both eventually decided to stop destructive ASAT testing. Hopefully, China will eventually come to a similar conclusion. Beginning a meaningful bilateral dialog on space security between the United States and China could hasten the day.

A Global Times editorial defended the development of anti-satellite weaponry as necessary “to deter the US from taking risky action against China in this period of great transition”, given its rejection of past olive branches.

China’s public policy is peaceful use of space, which is also China’s real desire. China has no interest in launching a large-scale space race with the US. China and Russia jointly initiated a program to avoid an arm race in outer space in 2008, but this proposal was refused by the US.

Against this background, it is necessary for China to have the ability to strike US satellites. This deterrent can provide strategic protection to Chinese satellites and the whole country’s national security.

[…] In the foreseeable future, gap between China and the US cannot be eliminated by China’s development of space weapons. The US advantage is overwhelming. Before strategic uncertainties between China and the US can disappear, China urgently needs to have an outer space trump card.

[…] Therefore, hopefully, the speculation about China’s anti-satellite tests is true.

American arms sales to China’s neighbours, meanwhile, are “set to boom”, according Reuters’ Jim Wolf, reporting on a forecast by the Aerospace Industries Association.

Fears resulting from China’s growing military spending should lead to enough U.S. sales in South and East Asia to more than offset a slowdown in European arms-buying, according to the forecast.

[…] Overall, the United States reached arms transfer agreements in 2011 totaling $66.3 billion, or nearly 78 percent of all such worldwide pacts, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The 2011 total was swollen by a record $33.4 billion deal with Saudi Arabia. India ranked second with $6.9 billion in such agreements.

Rupert Hammond-Chambers, who consults for U.S. arms makers through BowerGroupAsia, an advisory with 10 offices in the region, predicted Southeast Asian defense budgets would expand steadily as a hedge against Chinese assertiveness in disputes in the South China and East China seas.

[…] The Obama administration says arms sales are an increasingly critical and cost-efficient arrow in its quiver to defend U.S. worldwide interests.