By Radhakrishna Rao
Media reports reveal that there are growing concerns in the United States over rapidly expanding Chinese space capabilities that could help the communist giant derive diplomatic and defense-related advantages, which in turn could hurt the long-term national security and geostrategic interests of the US.
A well-documented national security report on revising US export controls on satellites by the US State Department and Department of Defense reflects the concern that "China's modernized military and especially its space-related capabilities
could be put to use in ways that increase China's ability to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor and possibly against US national interests".
How can growing Chinese space prowess pose a threat to US security interests? According to an analysis by the Washington-based World Security Institute, sophisticated space platforms being operated by China could limit the extent of US intervention in the event of China deciding to annex Taiwan by force.
"Starting from almost no live surveillance capability 10 years ago, today China's PLA [People's Liberation Army] has equaled the US ability to observe targets from space for real time operations," said researchers at the institute. Not surprisingly, the predominant view in the US defense establishment is that the PLA has built up capabilities aimed not only at Taiwan but also to deter, delay or outright deny possible US or allied intervention in any cross-strait conflict.
What has enabled China to spread its soft power in Third World countries - much to the annoyance of the US?
According to analysts, China continues to make available its space expertise to the countries keen on entering the "satellite age" through long-term soft loans and hassle-free technical assistance and smooth technology transfer .
The China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), set up in 1980 as a commercial wing of the Chinese space program, continues to provide commercial space services including building and launching of satellites along with the setting up of the ground receiving stations to the customers around the world.
China has already built and launched satellites for countries such as Pakistan, Venezuela and Nigeria, in addition to providing commercial launch service for Indonesia's domestic satellite named Palapa. Further, it has signed commercial satellite and ground systems export contracts with Bolivia and Laos.
These developments have a negative impact on the US, in that China has successfully challenged the once absolute US dominance over the global commercial space enterprise. Secondly, it has helped boost China's diplomatic clout across a large part of the Third World, much to the disadvantage of the US. In the ultimate analysis, Chinese forays in space, in addition to reinforcing its technological supremacy, have resulted in the expansion of its soft power.
Equally worrying to the US is the long-term Chinese plan to outpace both the US and Russia and dominate the final frontier. Chinese space dominance would also imply that it would try to stay ahead in the race for space weaponization.
China already views space as a vital platform for boosting the combat readiness of its armed forces. In particular, the Chinese plan for realizing an orbiting complex during this decade would help it derive strategic advantage in the event of a war involving space assets.
China, which has a strong political ambition in space, stunned the world by accomplishing an anti-satellite test in early 2007. This involved the destruction of an aging weather watch satellite in the intermediate Earth orbit through the deployment of a medium-range ballistic missile.
United States think-tanks believe China is also active in building weapons based on laser beams and directed energy devices for use in space. Indeed, the perception in US political and defense circles is that China's anti-satellite program has significant implications for anti-access/area denial efforts against the US in Taiwan Strait contingencies.
According to Karl Bergquist, who heads China relations at the European Space Agency (ESA), the immediate-term focus of the Chinese space endeavor is on exploitation of the Taingong-1 laboratory orbited last year to pave the way for building a larger space station, development of a new heavy lift-off launcher, establishment of the Beidou satellite navigation system and a well-planned drive to build a high-resolution satellite data capacity that could contribute to Chinese defense build-up in a significant manner.
As part of its vision to position itself as a global space supremo, China is now building an ultra-modern launch complex at Wenchang on Hainan island that happens to be the epicenter of its massive naval build up. This happens to be the first coastal launch station of China. All the three currently operational Chinese launch complexes are landlocked.
Meanwhile, China's human space exploration program is poised for a surge with the Shenzhou-9 mission slated for launch by means of a Long March space vehicle sometime during this year. This mission will see three crew members accomplishing a manual docking before boarding Tiangong-1, living there for an unspecified period to carry out scientific experiments.
Indeed, this Chinese space mission will be keenly observed by China watchers who expect a significant push in China's manned space program, which is controlled and managed by the defense establishment.
Radhakrishna Rao is a full time aerosapce and defense writer with three decades of experience in contributing stories in areas of his professional interest to a wide ranging global media.