Why would the regime that runs China, which restricts both the foreign and domestic travel of its own people, insist on building rocket ships to send members of the People's Liberation Army into space?
Unravel this riddle wrapped in a mystery, to paraphrase Churchill, and you will discover the secret at the center of one of the greatest security risks facing the United States in the coming decades.
Chinese leaders explaining their space program sound like the belligerent FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock who goes undercover as a beauty pageant contestant in the movie "Miss Congeniality." Asked her hopes for the future by the pageant emcee, the FBI beauty queen says, "That there would be harsher penalties for parole offenders, Stan . . . and world peace."
Just before China's first manned rocket blasted off, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao delivered a speech at the launch site.
"He hoped that all comrades on the space industry front . . . will conscientiously carry forward the 'two bombs and one satellite' spirit," reported the official Xinhua news agency. This was a reference to China's development of the A-bomb, the H-bomb and its first satellite. In case anyone missed the connection Hu was drawing between China's space and military programs, he called on the crowd "to seize new victories in China's space industry and in the development of science and technology for national defense."
This was the belligerent face of China in space. Orbiting aboard Divine Vessel 5, People's Liberation Army Lt. Col. Yang Liwei flashed the beautiful face. "For the peace and progress of all mankind," he wrote in his log, "the Chinese come to outer space."
But don't expect U.S. Defense planners to hug, kiss and congratulate the peace-loving Beijing regime for perfecting its space systems.
In January 2001, a special commission on space-related national security issues -- chaired by soon-to-be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- reported that the U.S. military and intelligence communities are increasingly dependent on space-based technology that is vulnerable to both land- and space-based attack.
"There are a number of possible crises or conflicts in which the potential vulnerability of national security space systems would be worrisome," said the Rumsfeld Commission. Among them: "Conflict in the Taiwan Strait."
In an article in the current issue of the Washington Quarterly entitled "Averting a Sino-U.S. Space Race," William C. Martel, a professor at the Naval War College, and Toshi Yoshihara, of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, discuss the Taiwan Strait scenario. China, they say, "will increasingly need military space capabilities if it is to improve its ability to coerce Taiwan in a conflict and counter U.S. intervention to defend the island in a crisis or conflict."
"China could, for example," they write, "pre-emptively attack U.S. assets in space prior to the outbreak of conflict in the Taiwan Strait in an effort to prevent the United States from coordinating military intervention."
I asked House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, whether Americans should see China's space program as a military threat. "Absolutely," he said.
He pointed to the 1999 findings of a special committee chaired by Republican Rep. Chris Cox of California that studied the military implications of unauthorized U.S. technology transfers to China. "If you read the Cox Report," he said, "what some of our biggest companies did was give information to the Chinese missile program, the launch vehicle program, with respect to satellite launches, which was relevant to not only space launches but also to military launches, because the same boosters carry the warheads that are aimed at American cities as carry satellites."
The Cox Report cited both Loral and Hughes Space and Communications as having transferred information that aided China's launch program. Since then, both companies have agreed to pay fines to settle their cases with the State Department.
The Rumsfeld Commission warned of complacency about the threat to the U.S. in space. "History is replete with instances in which warning signs were ignored and change resisted until an external 'improbable' event forced resistant bureaucracies to take action," the commissioners concluded. "The question is whether the U.S. will be wise enough to act responsibly and soon enough to reduce U.S. space vulnerabilities. Or whether, as in the past, a disabling attack against the country and its people -- a 'Space Pearl Harbor' -- will be the only event able to galvanize the nation and cause the U.S. government to act.
"We are on notice," they said, "but we have not noticed."