China unveils a new “stealth” jet, but we don’t know how stealthy it is or when it might fly actual missions. China unveils a new aircraft carrier. Its leaders boast about extending China’s reach, but the carrier doesn’t have any planes and we aren’t sure when they might build them. Monitoring a rapidly developing China, whose language is unknown to most Americans and whose government is obsessed with secrecy, requires a degree of speculation. Perhaps by design, China makes it hard to separate fact from fiction and intent from aspiration.

Estimations of Chinese capabilities and interpretations of Chinese intent based on single-source or dated information will not yield useful analysis. Distinctions must be made between official Chinese policy and the opinions of individual Chinese researchers. This is especially true when discussing China’s space programs. Given the dual-use nature of the overwhelming amount of space technology, as well as the competitive character of U.S.-China relations, technical information can easily be misinterpreted through a prism of assumed ill intent. While the military must consider worst-case scenarios, recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have clearly demonstrated the dangers of basing policy decisions and consequent military strategies on poor technical assessments. Keep reading →