China's rapidly developing satellite program has emerged as a new threat to U.S. military influence in Asia, according to new research from a Washington-based think tank. As China steps up the use of its satellites for military use, the possibility of a power shift in the region is increasingly likely, with the U.S. forced to take a step backwards.
◆ Increased Surveillance Ability
The Financial Times reported on Tuesday that Chinese military satellites have become almost as good as their U.S. counterparts in terms of their aerial surveillance capabilities.
According to the FT, which cited a report by the World Security Institute, China's satellites are now capable of monitoring a fixed target for six hours a day. This marks a huge stride from just 18 months ago, when they were only able to observe targets for half as long.
"Starting from almost no live surveillance capability 10 years ago, today the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has likely equaled the U.S.'s ability to observe targets from space for some real-time operations," Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, two of the institute's China researchers, wrote in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
China had 67 satellites circling the earth as of the end of last year, but it plans to put another 20-plus into orbit in 2011. At present it still lags behind the U.S. and Russia, which have 441 and 99 in orbit, respectively, but China is catching up quickly in terms of its military satellite technology, an area the U.S. has dominated until now.
The WSI said China has become capable of tracking enemy targets in real time and, if it achieves its goal in terms of satellite deployment over the next two years, it could surpass the U.S. in terms of its surveillance capabilities.
◆ Mounting Regional Tension
China's budding network of military satellites will also heighten the effectiveness of its newly developed anti-ship ballistic missiles, stealth fighters and aircraft carrier. This means that Chinese ballistic missiles will be capable of directly hitting U.S. aircraft carriers should they intervene in a conflict between Beijing and its regional neighbors.
Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the PLA, recently told Adm. Mike Mullen, the visiting Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Beijing was suspicious of Washington's surveillance operations in the South China Sea. He criticized the move as being responsible for "heightening tensions" in the region.
Experts say that Chen's strongly worded statement stems from China's confidence in its growing military strength. The country's increasing military power is also raising tensions among its Asian neighbors that have traditionally been allies of the U.S. The FT reported that Vietnam and the Philippines were feeling increasingly jittery due to their territorial disputes with China.