Japanese and South Korean politicians are said to be discussing plans to create satellite-borne weapons following the launch of a Chinese weather satellite in December.
Japan is studying the “potential deployment of small-scale satellites capable of carrying lethal missiles”, according to sources quoted by the Japan Times.
The Pentagon has reportedly responded by requesting a higher-level meeting between its Japan and South Korea counterparts to discuss the development of ballistic missile-like features to be fitted to the tiny payloads currently used by China’s satellites.
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South Korea has also expressed concern about the Chinese-built weather satellite, but it has not confirmed plans to seek to modify its infrastructure to include weaponisation capabilities.
Beijing-controlled media have raised questions about how Japan and South Korea will react to the launch and are also reported to be examining the possibility of firing a missile at a Chinese satellite.
Both South Korea and Japan suffered missile attacks in the 1960s and 1970s, which they blamed on North Korea. Pyongyang has used the same strategy against Beijing in recent years, successfully penetrating the radar on one of China’s more advanced missile batteries in 2015.
The flurry of alarm in China has grown in recent days amid speculation that Pyongyang could be preparing a new nuclear test. Shortly after images emerged showing South Korean and Japanese cruise missiles reportedly being mounted on Chinese jumbo jets, Beijing’s state-run Xinhua news agency warned that fears were being stoked by “rightwing ideology”.
Experts say it is difficult to judge whether Beijing will risk losing face by going ahead with the development of space weapons in the face of certain condemnation in the West.
“We don’t have a single nuclear-powered missile to launch, so in that sense, sending a missile to go shoot at the satellite won’t amount to much,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center’s earth science and Nasa Astrophysics Division.
“The only obvious thing you can do [with a missile] is to go after it, to kill it and destroy it … how many troops you would need to gather around the satellite to get there, with the same number that you would gather around the military leader when he goes to spy on it, is a serious question.”
According to Chinese experts, Beijing is seeking to avoid the pitfalls of the US space race in the 1960s. During the Soviet Union’s decades-long space race, the best ship of its Arrow missile fleet destroyed its older sister vessels because it did not contain the missile-warhead-compatible features they needed.
“It’s obvious what China is doing with these satellites and not with its ballistic missiles,” Wang Xiaokun, an associate professor of Chinese nuclear physics at Peking University, told the BBC. “The reason it has a strong motivation to make these smaller-scale satellites is that they want to guard against a situation where they must live in a world of nuclear war with nuclear-powered missiles,” he said.
China’s navy has made a push into space in recent years, as it tries to take a growing role in defending its far-flung coastline and doing battle with other hostile superpowers. Last year, a new ship, the Chang’e-3 lunar probe, became the country’s first-ever manned spacecraft to have successfully landed on the moon, returning images of the surface and tantalising details of past and present ice – one of the few achievements China’s secretive military-run space programme has not yet achieved.
Experts say Beijing’s ambitions are beginning to attract attention in international space circles, where China has been quietly increasing its defence spending, with research groups such as Tang Bi, which is working on the hypersonic technology that would allow missiles to take off from spaceships.
“We have made some breakthroughs now,” Tang Bi’s director, Tang Zhengqiao, told state media last month. “China has the world’s fastest and most powerful high-speed train, whose launches took place within 24 hours – this is a milestone for China, and we will continue to develop hypersonic propulsion technologies.”