China’s foreign ministry insisted that the country’s intentions in space were peaceful, after comments from top air force brass preparing to celebrate a 60th anniversary worried analysts in the United States.
Like the rest of the People’s Liberation Army, the air force is trying to upgrade information capability, modernize its forces and develop homegrown technology.
Its efforts to catch up to the United States in space are a source of pride in China, but have raised alarms in Washington after Chinese air force commander Xu Qiliang spoke of a “Great Wall of steel in the blue sky” in an interview with state news agency Xinhua this week.
A space race between Asia’s major and emerging powers has been building in recent years, with China, Japan and India all launching unmanned Moon missions since 2007 and harbouring plans for manned lunar expeditions.
“Competition between military forces is shifting to space, military force is expanding ceaselessly in the direction of space. This shift is a strong trend, this expansion is natural, this development cannot be reversed,” Xu told Xinhua.
“Control of space equals control of the ground, oceans and electro-magnetic spheres, it means taking the strategic initiative. Not only major countries’ air forces are raising their competitiveness, developing country forces are too.”
Xu specified that the air force’s only purpose was to guard China’s sovereignty and protect world peace and stability, and called for more domestically developed planes.
“China has always advocated the peaceful use of outer space, and opposed the weaponisation of outer space and arms races there,” foreign ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said yesterday. “China has not, and will never, participate in any kind of arms race in outer space. We have not changed our stance.”
China now launches its own and other countries’ telecommunications and other satellites, and its taikonauts have conducted a spacewalk. It hopes to put a man on the moon.
In January 2007, China alarmed regional powers by shooting down one of its obsolete satellites with a ballistic missile.
Fighters and fairies
The highlight of the anniversary celebration this weekend will be the descent of seven parachutists dressed like fairies from a Chinese folktale. Planes will perform aerial acrobatics.
After the Communists won control of the Chinese mainland in 1949, they bought Soviet planes to build up an air force. Buying from the Russians has declined as China has re-engineered Russian models in Chinese factories.
It has not yet caught up with the technological capabilities of the United States, which has supplied the air force of rival Taiwan. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province.
“China has gaps in its ability to survey the battlefield, even in littoral combat,” said Matthew Durnin, a Beijing-based researcher with the World Security Institute.
“The fighter and bomber programs have not been very successful at indigenous production. They are still very dependant on imported technology, some of which they are reverse engineering.”
Most of the planes that flew in a Beijing military parade to mark the 60th year of Communist party rule were modifications of Soviet designs, manufactured in China.
China is building civil aviation capacity through a manufacturing joint venture with Airbus, owned by EADS.