China’s military has made dramatic progress in space over the past decade and the goals of its program remain unclear, a top US general said on Tuesday.
Citing Beijing’s advances in space, General Kevin Chilton, head of US Strategic Command, said it was crucial to cultivate US-China military relations to better understand China’s intentions.
“With regard to China’s capabilities, I think anyone who’s familiar with this business — and particularly our history in this business over the years — would have to be absolutely amazed at the advancement that China has made in such a short period of time, whether that be in their unmanned program or the manned program,” Chilton said. “They have rapidly advanced over the last ten years.”
Chilton’s comments came after a top Chinese air force commander, Xu Qiliang, called the militarization of space a “historical inevitability” and said that the country’s military was developing offensive and defensive operations in space.
The Chinese commander’s remarks, reported by state media on Monday, marked an apparent shift in Beijing’s opposition to weaponizing outer space.
Chilton acknowledged that space had become an arena for military rivalry, with an increasing number of countries pursuing space-based weaponry — including Iran and North Korea.
Chilton added that both sides have come to understand that space is a contested domain. “It used to be looked at like a sanctuary,” he said, “and clearly that’s not the case today.”
Asked about the Chinese commander’s remarks, Chilton said that Beijing’s space program “is an area that we’ll want to explore, and understand exactly what China’s intentions are here and why they might want to go in that direction, and what grounds might accommodate a different direction.”
Chilton said a visit last week to U.S. Strategic Command headquarters by General Xu Caihou, China’s second-ranking military officer, marked a promising step in efforts to promote more dialogue with Beijing.
“I think maybe through dialogue we can better understand what their broader objectives are. I think that’s one of the most encouraging things about the visit we had last week,” he said.
Calling it “an initial introductory visit,” Chilton said the military was looking for opportunities to begin follow-up dialogue with the Chinese military and that Strategic Command was ready to contribute its expertise in discussions on space and nuclear deterrence.
US defense analysts have warned that the US military will soon lose its dominance in space as China and other emerging powers obtain sophisticated weaponry and missiles. China has long stated that it supported the peaceful uses of outer space and opposed the introduction of weapons there. Beijing has also sought to establish an international treaty to control the deployment of weapons in space.
However, in January 2007, China rattled foreign military leaders when it shot down one of its own weather satellites in a test seen by the U.S. and others as a provocative display of space missile technology.
China clearly recognizes the significance of this capability. In 2005, a Chinese military officer wrote in the book Joint Space War Campaigns, put out by the National Defense University, that a “shock and awe strike” on satellites “will shake the structure of the opponent’s operations system of organization and will create huge psychological impact on the opponent’s policymakers.” Such a strike could hypothetically allow China to counterbalance technologically superior U.S. forces, which rely heavily on satellites for battlefield data. China is still decades away from challenging the U.S. in space. But U.S. officials worry China is increasing investments in anti-satellite weaponry for the purpose of disrupting U.S. satellite capabilities.