The Pentagon's annual report to Congress on Chinese military power was released this week, and the "high ground" is said to be gaining prominence in Beijing's military strategy.
China became the third nation to launch humans into Earth orbit in 2003. It conducted its first space walk in 2008. Beijing is pursuing human spaceflight for many of the same reasons as the United States and Russia, namely, political prestige. Outside analysts have long puzzled over China’s intentions in space, especially its manned space program, which includes plans for a manned space station by 2020.
The Pentagon report concludes that China is expanding its constellations of reconnaissance, surveillance and communications satellites as it seeks to compete militarily with the U.S. (while adding to the Earth’s orbital traffic jam). “China is developing a multi-dimensional [space] program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries,” the report concludes.
Still on the drawing boards, according to the report, is a heavy-lift rocket, the Long March V, which would at least double the size of payloads China could loft into low-Earth orbit.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the report lumps China’s space development efforts with it cyber warfare efforts. (Outer and cyber space?). Perhaps the answer lies in this quote from a People’s Liberation Army analysis cited in a section of the report on “informatized warfare”: “Space is the commanding point for the information battlefield.”
As in the past, the Pentagon report emphasizes the private desire of China's military leaders to develop an anti-satellite capability along with space-based missile defenses. Little hard evidence of such efforts is presented, hence the suspicion here that DoD wants to keep its space options open by again warning of Chinese ASAT weapons. The fact is that such weapons are expensive to develop, and no one really knows how effective they would be given the testing difficulties.
It's also likely that China's astonishing economic growth is a greater threat to U.S. national security than futuristic space weapons.
The 2010 edition of the Defense Department's report on the state of Chinese military power can be viewed here.