Page 1 of 2 Space is suddenly on the agenda
By Peter J Brown
United States President Barack Obama is preparing to make his first official
trip to Asia this week, and a growing list of important economic and
defense-related issues are on his agenda. From the time he touches down in
Tokyo on Thursday until the time he flies home from Seoul - stops in Singapore,
Shanghai and Beijing are also planned - Obama is going to be watched closely
Obama's visit to China is going through some last-minute changes due to recent
remarks about China's plans for space by General Xu Qiliang, commander of the
People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Air Force. On November 1, in advance of
activities marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Air Force,
interviewed by China's PLA Daily.
"Only power could protect peace. Superiority in space and in air would mean, to
a certain extent, superiority over the land and the oceans," he said. "As the
air force of a peace-loving country, we must forge our swords and shields in
order to protect peace."
According to Xu, "a country without adequate power would have no say when faced
with challenges posed by the militarization in the space and air." 
Xu also said that, "military competition has shifted towards space. Such a
shift is a major trend now, and such expansion is a historical inevitability."
A few days later, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) made clear that
Xu's comments were incomplete and had to be taken in context.
"I want to point out China has all along upheld the peaceful use of outer
space. We oppose the weaponization of outer space or a space arms race," said
MFA spokesman Ma Zhaoxu. "China has never and will not participate in an outer
space arms race in any form. The position of China on this point remains
Among other things, Xu had failed to stay on message. On at least two occasions
last month in speeches made at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, China
reaffirmed its established opposition to any arms race in space.
"The prevention of weaponization of and an arms race in outer space is an issue
of high strategic significance. It also represents the common mission and
responsibility on the part of international community," ambassador Wang Qun,
head of the Chinese delegation told an audience at the UN on October 10. He
also urged the UN to "soon start its substantive discussions on the draft
Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat
or Use of Force Against Outer Space Object which was jointly presented by
Russia and China in February last year, so as to contribute to improving the
legal system concerning outer space and maintaining security in outer space."
Just days later at another UN session devoted more specifically to
space-related matters, China's position was spelled out yet again.
"China has all along adhered to peaceful uses of Outer Space. We call for joint
efforts by the international community to build a 'harmonious outer space
order' which is conducive to peace, development, cooperation and the rule of
law. China is of the view that any act that contravenes the principle of
peaceful uses of outer space, such as weaponization of and arms race in outer
space, runs counter to the common interest of mankind," said ambassador Liu
Zhenmin as he commended the UN Bureau of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of
Outer Space (COPUOS) and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs for "the
positive outcome of the 52nd Session of COPUOS".
It is unlikely that Xu was unaware of China's official position, but was he
either just speaking his mind or, perhaps, marking the start of new Chinese
chapter in space. Some have said that the fact that any senior PLA officer is
commenting on military space matters is noteworthy, because the PLA has been so
silent on these matters for so long.
"Clearly - and all of Washington is aware of this - the PLA has been thinking,
even planning, to respond to what they perceive as US plans to dominate space
for some time, though they have kept their public statements focused on
peaceful uses, largely to contrast with statements and policies of the US,"
said Dr Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making
Department at the US Naval War College. "So, this does not indicate a major
policy shift that should surprise Washington."
One expert on space and proliferation issues who was contacted in Japan, said
that English-language translations in this instance failed to accurately convey
what Xu said and that much of the context might have been lost entirely. Xu was
not talking about space weaponization but rather about space militarization in
the form of satellite-based reconnaissance, communications, and targeting etc.
And he was stressing increased competition not conflict.
When Asia Times Online recently focused on the remarks made by PLA Senior
Colonel Yao Yunzhu during a dinner held in early 2007 at the World Economic
Forum in Davos, Switzerland, questions were raised about what exactly she said,
too, when she became the first Chinese military officer to comment publicly
about the controversial 2007 Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test. (See
Omaha greets an 'unusual visitor' from China, Asia Times Online, Oct
According to Eric Hagt, China program director at the World Security Institute
in Washington DC, Xu's comments will not greatly impact the tenor of Obama's
trip, which will be dominated by climate change, North Korea and the economy
more than the PLA's military modernization or the PLA Air Force's opinion on
the role of space as a future domain of war. Still, the Obama administration
should seek an official clarification from China, since that could be
instrumental when negotiations on a ban on space weapons proceed, according to
"The statements, as bold as they were, do not actually represent a shift in
Beijing's posture in space. Beijing will not back down from acquiring the
ability to protect its interests there, including defensive and tactically
offensive operations. But that is a different story than weaponizing space,"
said Hagt. "A clarification will help put the comments by Xu in context, which
were more than likely the result of internal jockeying for attention or at best
a strong reiteration of China's determination to pursue its interests in space
and for the US to treat it as an equal. The US will get that if not in public
certainly in private. In fact, the MFA is already doing that."
At roughly the same time that Xu's remarks appeared - and just a few days after
a meeting with General Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China's Central Military
Commission (CMC) and the second-highest ranking officer in the PLA - US Air
Force General Kevin Chilton, commander of the US Strategic Command, told
reporters that the US and China needed to sit down together so that the China
could better explain its intentions in space.
It is not as if space has suddenly become a kind of South China Sea in the sky
where the US is anxiously looking over its shoulder as it awaits the next
unexpected and volatile close encounter with Chinese forces. Interestingly,
both Chilton and Xu made a special effort to focus on "the need for greater
"The PLA air force will continue to deepen exchanges and cooperation with its
foreign counterparts on an opener, more transparent, confident and practical
basis," Xu said.
Conservative critics of Obama, particularly those who harbor a deep distrust of
China, have jumped on Xu's comments. They view these comments by Xu as further
proof that China poses a strategic threat to the US and is not to be trusted
either in space or on the ground. They contend that Obama is deliberately
disarming the US on two fronts, putting the US increasingly at risk. First, in
his attempt to eliminate nuclear weapons, and second, by scaling back and even
eliminating funds for certain ballistic missile defense programs. Critics also
see Xu's comments as proof that China's intended objective is space supremacy
at all costs.