- - Wednesday, January 25, 2012


China continues to surge at an unprecedented speed as the world’s major contender to dominate space exploration. Last year, China’s 19 space launches surpassed the U.S. rate for the first time in history. For 2012, China’s government has announced plans to loft 21 spacecraft carrying 30 satellites into orbit, and it has vowed to keep up that pace at least through 2020. That’s when China presumably will take over as the leading spacefaring nation, and the only nation remaining with an operating space station.

Analysts say China is doing this with a clear strategic objective in mind: to edge out the United States from space competition at a time when Washington is viewed as rapidly retreating from its space programs.

Space competition between China and the United States began in earnest in January 2007. That’s when the Chinese military blasted a defunct Chinese weather satellite in space using the anti-satellite variant of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. The test demonstrated China’s ability to destroy an adversary’s orbiting spacecraft as part of the emerging anti-access, area denial strategy.

The United States responded with its own demonstration of sorts in February 2008. The Pentagon used a modified Standard Missile-3 anti-missile interceptor to shoot down a falling American spy satellite, even though at the time U.S. officials insisted the action was not an anti-satellite weapon test.

China is taking full advantage of the recent American slowdown in space. In 2010, the Communist Party of China included in its 12th Five-Year Plan an ambitious multiyear space program aimed at dominating the world in the number of manned and unmanned space launches. In 2011, China sent into orbit its first unmanned space station and later docked a spacecraft on it. It also launched a number of its own version of GPS satellites for the Chinese military’s satellite navigation system.

Unlike in the West, China’s space program is run exclusively by the military and is mainly used to support the rapidly expanding armed forces. Beijing considers America’s aircraft-carrier-based warfare and space-assisted weapons systems the two key pillars of the U.S. power projection forces in the Asia-Pacific region that threaten its rising national ambitions. The rapid research and development of anti-ship missiles and anti-satellite capabilities are a major strategic emphasis for the army, especially in the context of the recently announced U.S. Air-Sea Battle concept that is aimed primarily at China.


China is showing increased aggressiveness in confronting Japan over the hotly disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. The islands have been under Japanese administration since 1971, but tensions over these small, uninhabited islets have been escalating dramatically.

Since the clash between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coast guard vessel in September 2010, China has stepped up risky and provocative surveillance flights to the disputed area, causing Japanese jets to scramble to intercept the Chinese planes. A report released Jan. 19 by the Japanese Defense Ministry indicates that in 2011, Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces scrambled jet interceptors 143 times to meet incoming Chinese aircraft, compared to 96 times in 2010.

But in recent weeks, China has stepped up harsh reactions to Japan’s claims over the islands. Triggered by two Japanese lawmakers’ visits and a Tokyo plan to name a few surrounding islets in the area, China’s anger meter skyrocketed.

On Jan. 17, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s primary mouthpiece, published an angry opinion article, headlined “Don’t dare to test china’s resolve to safeguard its territorial sovereignty.” The commentary called Japan’s attempt to name the islets “a blatant effort to harm China’s core interest.”

The comment sent Japanese government officials into a flurry of high-level meetings because “core interest” had never before been used by China regarding the islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus and China calls the Diaoyu. Thewords in the past had been reserved for vital areas such as Taiwan and Tibet. The Chinese also began using “core interest” to describe disputed claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Coinciding with the heightened rhetoric, the Chinese government announced Jan. 21 that it soon will begin routine air patrols over its exclusive economic zone along the coast and, the Xinhua report empathetically mentioned, “areas that are being disputed with other countries” in the East China Sea.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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