Page 1 of 2 China takes on the US - in space
By Alan Boyd
SYDNEY - Chinese military experts believe a confrontation in space, probably
with the United States, is inevitable. What they haven't said is whether they
expect to win.
Two disarmament officials with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) this week
accused Washington in an assessment of the global weapons buildup of fueling an
arms race aimed at controlling "the commanding heights".
"In the not too distant future, outer space will certainly become a stage for
struggle between countries," charged Xu Nengwu, of China's National Defense
Science and Technology University.
Simialry, Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of
the PLA, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore at the
weekend, was less than subtle. He did not mention the US at all (other than
including Hurricane Katrina in the list of recent natural disasters), but did
identify "expansion of military alliance" and "development and expansion of
missile defense system" among the major security challenges the region faces.
The PLA has issued similar gloomy predictions before, usually accompanied by
demands for a negotiated disarmament treaty, that were seen as an admission
China lacked the ability to compete - and might be using as a cover for its own
lagging research efforts.
But since they successfully shot down an obsolete weather satellite with a
missile in an outer orbit in January 2007, the Chinese armed forces have been
operating from a position of relative strength.
So powerful was the impact from the four-stage rocket, which was traveling at
nearly 29,000 kilometers an hour when it struck the satellite, that it
scattered debris halfway around the globe. A definite footprint of strategic
No surprise then, that the Pentagon responded in February this year by shooting
down one of its own wayward satellites over the Pacific Ocean with a rocket,
thus shattering a 1980s undertaking not to conduct antisatellite (ASAT) tests.
Thirty-two countries are known to have a missile capability, including Asian
foes India and Pakistan, South and North Korea, Israel, Syria, Taiwan, Iran,
Vietnam, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia, China and the US. Any could
technically wage a military campaign in space, even if it were limited to
Most of these countries are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty, an agreement
approved by the United Nations in 1967 after tortuous negotiations between the
US and the Soviet Union - though China is one of the few nations to fully
accede to its provisions.
The Chinese have noted, with support from some peace organizations, that the
treaty is a Cold War relic fashioned in an era when the concept of futuristic
Star Wars armed orbiters was the preserve of science fiction writers.
Core commitments are that signatories will not place "nuclear or any other
weapons of mass destruction", military installations or fortifications in orbit
around the Earth or on any celestial body, undertake testing of weapons there
or conduct military maneuvers.
Conventional weapons based in space are totally legal. And there is no
prohibition on the firing of ground-based missiles into space, as both the US
and Soviet Union were developing intercontinental missiles and peaceful space
programs when the treaty was signed.
Similarly, there is wide scope for interpreting "weapons of mass destruction";
as US defense officials have pointed out, practically anything that could be
propelled into space could be used to ram a satellite without violating the
China has been at the forefront of efforts to expand the accord; yet even its
version, introduced in the UN as a draft treaty in 2002, falls far short of the
moratorium being sought by disarmament groups.
Backed by an eclectic group that included Russia (which superseded the Soviet
Union as a treaty signatory), Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus and Vietnam, the draft
proposed the deployment of all space-based weapons. Again, the ground missiles
Perhaps Beijing is only being realistic: there is a legitimate argument for
developing missiles for satellite launches and wider space programs. But the
powerful conservative bloc in the US sees a more sinister motivation at work.
"Even as it tries to rally multinational coalitions and public opinion to
oppose 'the weaponization of space', Beijing quietly continues to develop its
own space-based weapons and tactics to destroy American military assets,"
Heritage Foundation vice president for foreign policy and defense studies,
Larry M Wortzel, railed in a commentary.
"China's strategy here is to blunt American military superiority by limiting
and ultimately neutralizing its existing space-based defense assets, and to
forestall deployment of new technology that many experts believe would provide
the best protection from ballistic missile attack."
Last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao sided with Russia in its long-running
campaign to block the deployment of a US missile defense system covering much
of East Asia that would partly operate from bases in Eastern Europe.
Some analysts believe Beijing is worried the deployment of American space-based
interceptors would block missiles the PLA has been upgrading to target what it
calls the renegade island of Taiwan and US Pacific bases.
Certainly, the Chinese military apparatus hasn't been sitting on its haunches
while its diplomats have been getting all worked up over the Americans.
Security analysts say it has poured cash into an electronic warfare capability
designed to jam satellite transmissions, developed laser-based weapons and
improved its heavy-lift rockets.
The Technology Research Academy has been working on an advanced ASAT weapon
called a "piggyback satellite" that would attach itself to an enemy satellite,
space station or space-based laser and jam communications or blow up the
A generation of mini satellites is being developed that would be so small they
would be difficult to detect from the ground. They are said to be defensive,
but would still be capable of surveillance, reconnaissance, communications and
- theoretically - the destruction of other satellites.
Three mobile space launch vehicles, the KT-1, KT-2 and KT-2A, have been
designed to launch the "nano-sats". Pentagon officials say the KT-2 and KT-2A
will also be capable of targeting geosynchronous and polar orbits used by US
American strategists seized on 2003 comments by Captain Shen Zhongchang of the
Chinese Navy Research Institute that he envisioned a weaker military force -
presumably China - being able to defeat a superior one by attacking its
space-based communications and surveillance systems.
"The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory, with
outer space becoming the new commanding heights for combat," Shen is quoted as
saying in the US Defense Department's annual report to Congress on the Chinese
China's antisatellite test last year was probably designed more for political
effect than military gain: after all, it has already sent astronauts into space
and has a robust intercontinental ballistic missile program. It is likely
Beijing was sending a signal to Washington that it could cripple low-level
satellites if the US overstepped the mark on the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty,
There is no doubting the technical gap that still exists between