Pentagon China Report: Prelude to an Arms Race in Space?

By Alexander Neill

The Pentagon has reacted with predictable alarm to the latest Chinese defence budget increase. But there is a genuine risk of a space arms race creating an atmosphere of uncertainty in the West Pacific.

On the eve of the opening of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Pentagon has released its annual report on China’s military capabilities to Washington’s Congress. Predictably, the US Department of Defense has expressed its undisguised displeasure over an 18 per cent Chinese defence budget increase. This is accompanied by the usual overtures on the lack of transparency of the PLA military leadership, hinting at obfuscation of the true military expenditure of the People’s Republic.

In the last five years, finger pointing at the opacity of the Chinese defence budget has become de rigeur for the Pentagon. The Chinese government has also retorted with the perennial shrugging of shoulders, stating the considerably smaller proportion of its GDP going towards the defence budget by comparison with that of the United States. In this respect, the report is nothing new.

This month however is the tensest period in a very sensitive year for China. Taiwan will elect a new president on 22 March who will hail either from Taiwan’s current independence-minded government or from the traditional ruling party, the Kuomintang, which enjoyed a decisive victory in parliamentary elections last month. Whatever the outcome of the presidential election in Taiwan, one fact has emerged at this crucial juncture: the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is now in favour of Beijing. Commensurate with the impressive growth of China’s economy is the growth of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from a relatively low-tech army of two decades ago to the rapidly modernising force that it is today.

The ‘New PLA’ of the post-modern age is also an anchor for the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and another opportunity to showcase China’s considerable achievements. In this respect, the hitherto tight-lipped Chinese leadership will feel compelled to give a stark warning to Taiwan at the NPC, pointed towards a domestic audience as much as to international eyes and ears. The message will be that if Taiwan crosses the red line and moves towards de jure independence from China, the consequences could be dire.

Anti-satellite missile launchA new message, however, underlines the conventional warning: in addition to protecting the maritime arteries feeding China’s growth, China views space as a corner-stone of its future prosperity. A mandate from heaven for China’s growth and military strength. If China loses the mandate of heaven in the heavens, the legitimacy of the Communist Party will be corroded. For this reason, China is working hard to undermine the Pentagon’s monopoly in space. This effort not only consists of the surprise roll-out of some impressive naval platforms and weapons systems but also of a series of new asymmetric doctrines that present difficulties for the US Department of Defense and its allies in East Asia. At the latest count, the PLA boasts 1,328 missiles pointed at Taiwan. With this in mind, the Pentagon has now assessed the PLA’s latest capabilities against US dominance in the Pacific.

This time last year, the PLA flexed its muscle with a successful anti-satellite test. Last month, Russia and China challenged the US to embark upon a treaty curbing the use of space for aggressive purposes. The US navy’s response was to test its nascent ballistic missile defence systems on one of its own satellites.

The PLA’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and China’s politburo now know that in the immediate vicinity of the Taiwan straits, the People’s Republic has the advantage over Taiwanese forces. Should the US decide to intervene in a cross-strait conflagration (by no means an absolute guarantee), Beijing intends to employ ‘asymmetric’ tactics. This amounts to a ‘sea denial’ operation by the PLA to prevent US carrier battle groups approaching Taiwan. In order to achieve sea denial as part of an anti-access campaign against US forces, the PLA has developed a number of asymmetric options to counter the perceived US threat, carefully crafted to make the US think twice over approaching the Taiwan Strait. The PLA’s approach is to shift capabilities from conventional warfare into the realms of the space domain, information, cyber and psychological warfare and to draw up an entirely new playing field when confronting its potential adversary.

Advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons systems used in conjunction with cyber-warfare are designed to be typically ‘assassin’s mace’ or surprise weapons aimed at the US Achilles Heel, its space assets controlling C4ISR systems. The multilayered approach using space, cyberspace and information operations is part of the PLA’s doctrine of ‘pressure point warfare’, designed to cripple an adversary in one swift strike. Some experts in the US defence establishment suggest that a Chinese ASAT campaign against a carefully selected group of US satellites could have catastrophic effect on both the US Military and the civilian economy. China’s space warfare planning goes hand-in-hand with its civilian space industry architecture and the PLA camouflages some of the most sensitive projects within the various civilian wings of the space industry.

Nevertheless, China is likely to be far more overt in its intentions for space with the imminent creation of an over-arching space command and space force. The inauguration of a space command will conveniently dovetail mid-way through the current Five Year Plan (2006-2010), a period in which China intends to launch up to 100 satellites, a four-fold increase from the number launched in the last five-year plan. Notably, China’s new ‘Cape Canaveral’ is being built on Hainan Island, giving a considerably larger launch capability.

While the State Department has to reckon with a competitive Chinese presence worldwide, particularly in the developing world, the Pentagon has come to terms with the fact that China has a number of weapons systems which present a considerable threat to US naval capabilities in the Pacific. The PLA must be congratulating itself on the impressive array of weaponry which has tilted the balance in the Taiwan Strait in its favour. Beyond the question of a Taiwan contingency, China is now in a position to consolidate its dominance beyond its littoral maritime territorial waters and to make forays into the Pacific. Accepting the challenges of a face-off with the United States, China is developing a range of asymmetric capabilities inextricably linked to the space domain in order to sidestep the overwhelming might of the US military in the Pacific region.

China, Taiwan and the United States do not want a confrontation; this would likely be a disaster of global proportions. However, the potential for miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait and an East Asian arms race extending into the space domain creates a lingering atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust between China, the United States and its allies in the West Pacific. In a year when the Olympics return to East Asia, with a new government emerging in Taiwan, the fifth generation leadership anointed in Beijing and a new US administration just around the corner, the argument for a set of confidence building measures for security in East Asia grows stronger.

Alexander Neill
Head, Asia Security Programme

Photo: USS Lake Erie launches a missile at a non-functioning US reconnaissance satellite. Courtesy of US Navy/Department of Defense. 

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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