China Might Have Just Amped Up the Space Race

Astronauts holding on to the satellite in space with blue sky in their background.

Last month, China conducted a successful test in space that involved a satellite using its new robotic arm extension to grab another satellite, giving a literal meaning to the arms race in outer space. 

Satellites are of vital strategic value for military and civilian infrastructure. They assist in communications, surveillance, navigation, and also provide precursors to hostile missile launches. Therefore, a satellite-snatching vehicle would be beneficial to Chinese aspirations and detrimental to American interests.

U.S. officials cite the new spacecraft as part of a covert Chinese anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) development program. If true, this satellite capture episode corroborates with an 83-page Department of Defense (DoD) annual report released in May 2013 expressing increased concerns over China's recent military developments. The report reviews Beijing as militarily aggressive, developing weapons that would "blind and deafen the enemy." The report also reveals Chinese military analyses:

"Destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors … will deprive an opponent of initiative on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play."

China's state-run Xinhua News Agency responded contentiously to the DoD report, calling it "baseless" and "counterproductive." Beijing claims its military developments are for defense purposes and to maintain regional stability. And with the rise of unmanned aerial drones, all of which require a satellite link, those purposes are reasonable.

However, when asked to comment on the ASAT development accusations, Chinese officials have remained silent. The only official statements about the spacecraft were made before the satellite was captured. They cited the Chinese satellite as serving only "scientific experimentation" purposes.

The Chinese space warfare program is notoriously secretive. The Obama administration has largely ignored China's "Star Wars" space weapon program despite its suspiciously guarded nature in order to preserve capricious U.S.-Sino relations.

Beijing has flat out declared before that they are opposed to "any form of arms race." However, the Chinese government is not exactly known for its transparency. And with outer space and drone strikes as the new battle frontier, this new spacecraft may put the arm back in the arms race.