South China Morning Post
November 3, 2009 Tuesday

China 'to put weapons in space'
Air force chief reveals China's plans to put weapons in space

Stephen Chen and Greg Torode

The head of China's air force has said the country has plans to build weapons in space, describing it as a "historical inevitability".

General Xu Qiliang told the People's Liberation Army Daily the air force felt it was "imperative" to develop operations in space. Xu is the first top commander to break from the official line and admit China's ambitions to put weapons in space.

He said the competition among military forces was moving beyond the Earth's atmosphere and even into deep space. Whoever controlled it would gain military dominance.

"As far as the revolution in military affairs is concerned, the competition between military forces is moving towards outer space ? this is a historical inevitability and a development that cannot be turned back," Xu said. "The PLA air force must establish in a timely manner the concepts of space security, space interests and space development."

Given China's rapid economic development and increasing political influence, the development of the air force was not only aimed at national security but also regional stability and international peace-keeping, he said in the interview. "There is no border in the sky and space. Only power can protect peace."

Xu's comments fit in with recent Pentagon reports on China's increasingly sophisticated military expansion, and overseas analysts saw them as a potential statement of intent.

The general also said the air force would start to follow a more proactive strategy and would strike overseas targets that it saw as a threat.

"China's national interests are expanding and the country has entered the age of space. The [Chinese Communist] Party and the people have given us a historic mission. After thorough consideration, we decided to change," Xu said.

"The air force will extend its reach from the sky to space, from defence of Chinese territory to attack [of threats] as well. We will improve the overall capability to strike a long-distance target with high precision, fight electronic or internet warfare with back-up from space ? and deliver our military strategic assets.

"China will become a world power by the mid-21st century and its air force must be able to counter many forms of security threats."

Mainland military analysts took Xu's comments as a sign that the PLA was engaged in a fundamental change in its way of thinking.

For years, the country followed Deng Xiaoping's doctrine to "bide one's time and conceal one's intentions" in foreign affairs, and the mainland tried to distance itself from the superpower image projected by the United States.

Retired Rear Admiral Xu Guangyu said the air commander's remarks indicated a shift from "passive defence" to "active defence".

"Passive defence means that we will only attack a target when it reaches within 12 nautical miles from the Chinese border. Nowadays, aircraft and missiles travel at high speed and we would not have enough time to respond. With active defence we will intercept a target way beyond the border or even eliminate it before launch," the admiral said.

"China has indeed opposed weaponisation of space but so far no countries in the world agreed to give it up. For the sake of our own security, we must have something in space."

Military analysts outside China described the air force chief's comments as a potentially important statement of intent but said they would not surprise anyone scrutinising Beijing's expanding capabilities and intentions.

"We know that space is just one more important area China has been seeking to develop as it expands its reach ? the question now is whether they want to do more and do it quicker," a Western military attaché said. "The air force may also be looking for big new projects to get back some of the thunder stolen by the navy, so some of the statements could be for internal consumption as much as impressing potential enemies."

Recent Pentagon reports on China's military expansion have detailed extensive plans for space warfare, from creating its own communications and global mapping and positioning systems to the complex and risky business of shooting down enemy satellites during conflict - a capability tested when China shot down one of its own weather satellites in January 2007.

Satellite technology is considered key to the ability to better link all elements of the military in times of battle, right down to fitting sensors on individual soldiers that can beam information back to a central command.

In the early stages, the development of its own global positioning system is considered a priority. Some satellites are already in place but a full system is not expected to be completed before 2015.

"We can see the building blocks are steadily being put in place for fully utilising space, but at the moment it looks to be just one of many priorities for the air force," said Gary Li, a researcher on the Chinese military at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.

"It will be interesting to watch whether this speech signals any significant intensification of the air force's plans."