A military rivalry between China and the United States is heating up and the battleground is space, with the two nations trying to boost their capabilities and Washington saying it will create a “Space Force” by 2020.
Chinese analysts expect Washington’s ambitious plan announced on Thursday to fuel an accelerating space arms race between the two nations and Russia, even though China’s technology still lags behind America’s.
Outlining the basic structure of the Space Force, US Vice-President Mike Pence and Defence Secretary James Mattis said space was vital to the country’s national interests.
Stressing the need for a special space force, Pence said both China and Russia were actively looking for technologies that could interfere with or disable US space-based systems.
“Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces,” he said in a speech at the Pentagon.
A US Space Command would be created as an interim step, to be led by a four-star officer and drawing forces from other armed services, he said.
The announcement follows US President Donald Trump’s order in June to establish a sixth branch of the US military. Chinese observers said the plan not only built on that idea but demonstrated a determination by his administration to target both domestic opposition and foreign rivals China and Russia.
The Pentagon’s proposal identifies China and Russia as “strategic competitors” that are “explicitly pursuing space war fighting capabilities to neutralise US space capabilities in a time of conflict”.
The US currently has 157 military satellites, outnumbering China’s 57 and Russia’s 83. But China has been catching up in terms of space capabilities, establishing a “Strategic Support Force” as a separate service in 2015, which has a space corps to execute missions in the new sphere.
China has tested anti-satellite weapons and runs a space-tracking facility in Argentina. It has made progress in developing its space capabilities – including on satellites, launches and a space station as well as human space flight missions – though it is still far behind the US, according to a report by the US National Institute for Public Policy last year.
Boosting its space capabilities further would allow the country to identify and target distant forces, improve surveillance and restrict enemy access to strategic locations, the report said.
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Retired People’s Liberation Army colonel Yue Gang said the arms race between the US, China and Russia had already begun in space, and it was escalating.
“Space is hugely strategic – this raises the stakes for world powers and they’re having to throw more resources at this to maintain the military balance,” Yue said. “There is an anxiety in America that China and Russia are catching up and that they can’t afford to lose their advantage in space.”
But according to Yue, China and the US would develop their programmes in line with different goals, with Washington focused on maintaining global leadership while Beijing focused on self-defence.
“China won’t be pushing forward in too many areas simultaneously, nor will it pursue an absolute technological lead,” he said. “We’ll be realistic and we won’t try to do anything beyond our capabilities.”
The White House has already been working with Congress to develop the plan, Pence said, and next year’s budget would seek funding and authorisation for the new armed service.
He Qisong, a space security expert in Shanghai, said China should try to ease US anxiety by making diplomatic efforts to prevent the militarisation of space and opening its Tiangong-2 space station to the international community.
He added that in 2014, China and Russia had jointly proposed a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, but the US dismissed it as “fundamentally flawed”.
“No one has been able to bring Americans to the negotiating table to limit their space capabilities, and now they’ve made up their minds to take on China and Russia in space,” He said.