World

Space, China's final frontier

Ben Blanchard

China is developing satellites that will allow it to project power beyond its shores and which may deter the US from using aircraft carriers.

China is developing cutting-edge satellites that will allow it to project power far beyond its shores and deter the United States from using aircraft carriers in any future conflict over its rival Taiwan, a report said.

The piece in October’s Journal of Strategic Studies, a United Kingdom-published defence and security journal, runs at odds with China’s stated opposition to the militarisation of space.

But the report, an advance copy of which was obtained by Reuters, said that the rapid development of advanced reconnaissance satellites to enable China to track hostile forces in real time and guide ballistic missiles has become a key to the modernisation of its forces.

While the United States used to be unrivalled in this area, China is catching up fast, it added.

“China’s constellation of satellites is transitioning from the limited ability to collect general strategic information, into a new era in which it will be able to support tactical operations as they happen,” the report said.

“China may already be able to match the United States’ ability to image a known, stationary target and will likely surpass it in the flurry of launches planned for the next two years.”

Beijing has consistently denied it has anything other than peaceful plans for space and says its growing military spending and prowess are for defensive purposes and modernisation of outdated forces.

But with the recent unveiling of a stealth fighter, the expected launch of its first aircraft carriers and more aggressive posture over territorial disputes such as one in the South China Sea, Beijing has rattled nerves regionally and globally.

China’s space programme has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong, who founded Communist China in 1949, lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space.

Since then, it has launched men into orbit and brought them home, sent out its first lunar probe and begun longer-term programmes to explore Mars and establish a space station.

The successful missile “kill” of an old satellite in early 2007 represented a new level of ability for the Chinese military, and last year China successfully tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned earlier this year that advances by China’s military in cyber and anti-satellite warfare technology could challenge the ability of US forces to operate in the Pacific.

‘Strategically disquieting
China’s need to use satellites to up its military game became apparent during the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis, when the US dispatched a carrier group after China menaced the self-ruled island with war games, the report said.

Beijing realised it could neither track nor respond to the US ships. The incident also led China to realise it needed the means to keep Washington from using its navy to intervene in a war over Taiwan. Beijing regards the island as a rebel province.

“The most immediate and strategically disquieting application [of reconnaissance satellites] is a targeting and tracking capability in support of the anti-ship ballistic missile, which could hit US carrier groups,” the report said.

“But China’s growing capability in space is not designed to support any single weapon; instead it is being developed as a dynamic system, applicable to other long-range platforms. With space as the backbone, China will be able to expand the range of its ability to apply force while preserving its policy of not establishing foreign military bases.”

More broadly speaking, satellites will be able to help China project power.

“As China’s capabilities grow, with space reconnaissance as an example, it will be increasingly hard to reconcile the rhetoric of a defensive posture and a more expansive capability.” - Reuters

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