Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

China's president sets space defense policy to stun

Advances in high-tech weaponry are raising real fears of a space arms race

In a move that promptly conjured up thoughts of Star Trek-like weaponry, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged his air force this week to beef up its air and space defense capability.

State media described the move as a response to the increasing militarization of space by the United States and other world powers.

Visions of sci-fi movies aside, experts warn of a very real threat. Advances in high-tech weaponry are raising concerns of a new space arms race.

Beijing insists its space program is for peaceful purposes. However, a Pentagon report last year highlighted China's increasing space capabilities and said Beijing was pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.

Fears of a space arms race with the United States and other powers mounted after China blew up one of its own weather satellites with a ground-based missile in January 2007.

Recent developments have done little to diminish fears in the west.

A detailed analysis of satellite imagery published in March provided additional evidence that a Chinese rocket launch in May 2013, billed as a research mission, was actually a test of a new anti-satellite weapon.

While visiting air force headquarters in Beijing, Xi, who is also head of the military, told officers "to speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities," Xinhua news agency reported late on Monday.

It gave no details of how China expects to do this.

China has to pay more attention to its defensive capabilities in space, state-controlled newspaper China Daily said on Tuesday.

"The idea of combining air and space capability is not new to the Chinese air force, as a host of experts have underscored the importance of space," it said.

Wang Ya'nan, deputy editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine in Beijing, said Xi's call for integrated air and space capability is to answer the need of the times.

"The United States has paid considerable attention and resources to the integration of capabilities in both air and space, and other powers have also moved progressively toward space militarization," Wang was quoted as saying.

"Though China has stated that it sticks to the peaceful use of space, we must make sure that we have the ability to cope with others' operations in space."

The U.S. has developed its own futuristic weaponry and is planning to deploy the world’s first-ever combat laser. The Laser Weapon System looks like a small telescope, but its beams are powerful enough to penetrate steel.

The laser is capable of shooting down aircrafts, but unlike the movies, its beam is invisible, it has been reported.

The laser technology is also significantly cheaper than traditional munitions. One zap by the laser is estimated to cost just one dollar. In contrast, a single Tomahawk cruise missile carries a reported price tag of $1.4 million.

China has been increasingly ambitious in developing its space programs for military, commercial and scientific purposes. Xi has said he wants China to establish itself as a space superpower.

But it is still playing catch-up to the United States and Russia, established space superpowers.

China's Jade Rabbit moon rover has been beset by technical difficulties since landing to great domestic fanfare in mid-December. In 2010, China designed a quantum teleportation device that the military could use to send secure messages to satellites.  

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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