There's a thriving little industry in the United States that produces magazine articles with titles like The Coming War With China and How We Will Fight China, plus the occasional full-length book like Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake's Showdown, a scenario for a U.S.-Chinese war.
The "Chinese military build-up" is now a regular feature in the documents the Pentagon produces each year to justify its budget demands - and now we have the dreaded Chinese satellite-killer.
The website of the specialist magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology was the first to break the news: "Details emerging from space sources indicate that the Chinese Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite, launched in 1999, was attacked by an ASAT (anti-satellite) system launched from or near the Xichang Space Center."
On January 11, China tested its first satellite-killer, and immediately afterwards the protests began to rain down.
"The U.S. believes China's testing and development of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space arena," said White House National Security Council spokesperson Gordon Johndroe.
The usual suspects chimed in with identical condemnations of China's action. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the test was "inconsistent with the spirit of China's statement to the UN and other bodies on the military use of space."
Fair comment, since for the past decade China has been advocating a binding international treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). But China's actions are certainly not inconsistent with the traditional U.S. position on the militarization of outer space: it's okay as long as we do it. (The U.S. first tested an anti-satellite weapon 22 years ago.)
In the 10 years China has been pushing for a treaty demilitarizing space, the U.S., which has vastly superior space technology, has consistently refused it. Of course, the Chinese may just be using the Bush administration's dogmatic hostility to any arms limitation treaty as a way to make themselves look good while they really play exactly the same game as the Pentagon. Who knows? Manipulation and deceit are second nature to human beings - indeed, to all the higher primates. What matters is the nature of the game.
The strategic point of a satellite-killing missile is that it can deprive the opponent of his electronic eyes and his ability to control an entire battle zone in real time. (During the invasion of Iraq, 83 per cent of the invading forces' communications passed through satellites.)
Being able to kill American satellites would be an important equalizer if China ever had to confront the U.S. seventh fleet in the Strait of Taiwan.
But realistically, China could never down all the American satellites. There are some 300 of them in low orbits that would have to be dealt with, and in a few hours the Xichang launch site would be smoking rubble.
The surviving U.S. satellites would take over the command-and-control function, American stealth aircraft would take over the reconnaissance, and it would all play out just about the same way as the current Taiwan crisis scenarios assume - except that a target deep within China, Xichang, would be hit.
But don't panic. They'll never let it get out of control. The United States and the People's Republic of China are indissolubly bound together by trade, and war is inconceivable.
Still, consider these remarks by Will Hutton, whose book on contemporary China, The Writing On The Wall, was published in Britain this month. "Very few [people elsewhere] understand the Bismarckian, pre-1914 feel to Asian great power politics.... Asia is a powder keg of competing nationalisms, battles for scarce energy resources and unresolved mutual enmities.... It is no longer scaremongering to warn of the small but growing risk of a devastating Asian war."
China doesn't want such a war. Neither does the United States or Japan or anybody else. But nobody wanted the first world war either. It came, as contemporaries said, "out of a clear blue sky."