China is expanding in all directions, including deeper into space.
It may be a bit unfair to Chinese technical competence, but there is good reason to track the spurt of China’s current military sophistication to the Clinton Administration’s sale of Cray supercomputers to Beijing in the 1990s. (Paralleled, of course, by the PRC’s accelerated program of technical secret stealing during the same period and later.) In any event, Chinese strategic weapon development now seeks to arrive at a point where it can challenge American superiority. Whether China can attain its objective in any reasonable future is the question.
Signs of growing Chinese military capability came about again only a few months ago when the latest generation of the Dong Feng 21 D missile was recognized as operational. U.S. Navy estimates place this medium-range land-to-sea missile as being accurate up to 900 miles. This has been referred to as a carrier-killer weapon that is aimed to counter U.S. Navy domination of East Asian waters. One development such as this doesn’t have the ability, in itself, to alter the balance of power in this portion of the Pacific, but it can present a new and important factor in threatening the defense of Taiwan.
Beijing’s enhanced missile capacity is only part of a series of weapon systems that China is in the process of developing — most of which reflects a belief in its need to counter U.S. influence in the Pacific regions. Beijing’s strategy is centered on the development of a “blue water” operational strength. Just how “blue” really depends on how the Peoples’ Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) sees its role. Its prime considerations are maintaining and increasing their offensive ability to attack Taiwan and on the defensive side to protect China’s oil pipeline from the Middle East.
Last Spring the PLAN sent a ten-ship battle group of destroyers, frigates, and submarines into the Pacific through the channels between Okinawa and the Miyako Islands. This was not the first time such a maneuver occurred, but it certainly was the largest. Along with an accelerated program of development of Jin class submarines, there continues to be a highly prioritized target of aircraft carrier construction. These ambitions clearly reflect Beijing’s desire to build a naval force capable of projecting China’s military power beyond its oft-stated defensive coastal role.
Japan, through its defense minister, Toshimi Kitayawa, already has declared China’s fleet operations to be “unprecedented” and indicated that Tokyo would have to assess whether these actions had any belligerent intent toward Japan. That was as close to a formal demarche the Japanese were willing to present on the subject of PRC force projection into near Japanese waters. Of perhaps even greater importance to China, however, is the need to build a naval presence off its island of Hainan (a main PLAN submarine base) and the vital sea-lanes of the South China Sea that it seeks to have recognized as its private pond.
Perhaps the area of most critical concern for Washington, and indeed also Moscow, is China’s commitment to stretch its technological and strategic ambitions in space. The PRC’s second lunar probe sent back high resolution images of the moon that the Chinese intend to use to determine just how and where they are going to place their unmanned landing in 2013. Seven years later, in 2020, Beijing states it will have completed its own space station — with no one’s help, they remind the world.
The real importance of this space plan has as much to do with international prestige and domestic morale as it does any real technological breakthrough. After all, the U.S. and Russia already have built a space station. What is a strategic objective of long-term import, however, is the notice that China is giving to the rest of the world that it intends to press forward with its own expeditions into deep space.
Perhaps of even higher immediate priority is the Chinese program to focus on the creation of new generations of smaller satellites for military purposes. These new satellites are being planned to act both defensively and offensively. They supposedly will have the ability to protect existing Chinese spy satellites or interfere with the operations of adversarial nations’ own space-borne military facilities.
Commentators in the West and Russia already have noted their expectations of Chinese efforts to build a forward base on the moon to aid it in deep space exploration. The Chinese, themselves, have not been shy about such long term potential for their programs.
In the meantime, the ever-commercially savvy trade officials in Beijing are aggressively selling their competitively priced communications satellites in the developing world. From a strategic planning standpoint, space-related projects are definitely win-win for the Chinese. China’s planners are moving at high speed in all strategic military areas — short through long term — pushing their country out front on the world scene.
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