The Obama adminstration must react responsibly to China's declaration that military operations in space are inevitable, a top China expert says.
"How will the US react to Chinese diplomatic efforts in light of the PLA's blunt statements on space warfare? This is something the Obama administration has to take into account," said Dean Cheng, China specialist at Washington's Heritage Foundation. "Are we going to see outrage, any meaningful reactions to the Chinese statements or again that it was someone speaking out of school and we just aren't sure."
Cheng was referring to what appears to mark a major shift in Chinese military and arms control strategy. The head of the PRC's air force has said in an official interview that military operations in space are an "historical inevitability."
"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,'' said air force commander Xu Qiliang in an interview with the official People's Liberation Army Daily.
"Only power can protect peace,'' the commander said in an interview celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC's air force.
For years, Chinese diplomats and military leaders have hewn to the line that the PRC pursued only peaceful uses of outer space. Chinese diplomats, working with Russia, pushed their own version of peaceful agreements on the uses of space, submitting a draft treaty in 2008 at the UN Conference on Disarmament that would have prohibited space-based missile defenses, among other things.
Joan Johnson Freese, professor at the Naval War College and one of the top experts on Chinese miltiary space policy and capabilities, bemoaned the general's comments, saying they sound "eerily like documents and statements from USAF Space Command." Freese said the only difference between the two sides is that "the Chinese are still calling for superiority rather than dominance."
The Bush administration's National Space Policy, released in October 2006, rejected new space arms control agreements if they would “limit” U.S. options in space. Some analysts believe China was reacting to this policy when it performed its January 11, 2007 anti-satellite test.
However, Cheng of the Heritage Foundation said he does not think the general's statement "is really much of a departure from what the PLA has been thinking for some time.... What you have is the PLA making that statement publicly."
Cheng thinks the most significant fact about the general's declaration is that it came from an Air Force official. Unlike the United States, where the Air Force is inextricably linked to space policy and operations, "until three or four years ago the [Chinese] Air Force did not have an overt role in space issues. What does this suggest about who actually runs China's space policy and military issues?" he wondered.
Cheng said the policy declaration did not necessarily indicate that the PLA was making new policy. After all, there have been clear indications that the PLA was leaning this way. After the Chinese anti-satellite test, Senior Colonel Yao Yunzhu of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences said that “outer space is going to be weaponized in our lifetime” and that “if there is a space superpower, it’s not going to be alone, and China is not going to be the only one.”
But Cheng said, "the PLA has never said they would not do military space operations. They just haven't been quoted at all. Now the silence has ended," he said.
As an example of how the PLA sometimes makes policy -- something the Foreign Ministry can rarely do since it does not have direct access to the PRC president, as does the military -- without public declarations having been made, he pointed to the anti-satellite test. While China's Foreign Ministry hemmed and hawed about just why China performed the test, some of the people who designed the missile's seeker later received awards.