Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited the headquarters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) earlier this month and issued remarks calling for the PLAAF to strengthen integrated air-space operations.
Coupled with reports of a new Chinese anti-satellite weapon test—this time of a system that can apparently reach satellites in geostationary orbit—there is growing concern that China is intent on a new round of military space weapons development.
In reality, the situation is both more and less serious than the reports would indicate. In 2004, the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military authority, finally incorporated a PLA air component into the national military strategic guidelines. That is, the PLAAF was granted its own “strategic mission,” finally placing it on a par with the naval and ground forces.
That strategic mission—implying that PLAAF senior commanders could be in charge of war-zone-level joint operations like their ground and naval counterparts—is to conduct “integrated air and space operations, prepare for simultaneous offensive and defensive operations.” In essence, Xi was not giving the PLAAF new instructions but emphasizing the PLAAF’s current missions.
This should not be reassuring, however. It reflects the long-term focus the Chinese military has given toward establishing “space dominance” (zhi tian quan). Based on close observations of foreign wars, especially those fought by the United States since the early 1990s, the PLA has concluded that the ability to establish “information dominance” (and especially “space dominance”) is essential for fighting and winning future wars. This interest in the ability to secure space is not simply theoretical, as the PLA has conducted space weapons tests in 2007, 2010, and 2013.
Within this context, Xi Jinping’s comments appear to be a criticism of the pace of PLAAF development and progress. Given yet another double-digit increase in the PLA’s budget for 2014, this suggests that the pace of PLA space capability improvement will further accelerate this year.