India said that it needs a military space program to defend its satellites from threats like China's newly revealed ability to shoot down targets in orbit.
The comments by India's army chief raise the possibility of a regional race that could accelerate the militarization of space and heighten tensions between the Asian giants, who have been enjoying their warmest ties in decades.
India urgently needs to "optimize space applications for military purposes," Gen. Deepak Kapoor said Monday at a conference in New Delhi on using space for military purposes.
He noted that "the Chinese space program is expanding at an exponentially rapid pace in both offensive and defensive content." His remarks were first reported by The Indian Express newspaper and confirmed by the Defense Ministry's spokesman on Tuesday.
China destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites with a ballistic missile in January, becoming the third country, after Russia and the U.S., to shoot down an object in orbit.
In February the United States shot down a satellite that it said posed a threat as it fell to Earth. Kapoor did not mention that, singling out China in a statement analysts said was designed to send a clear message to Beijing.
"In an unsubtle way this is related to China," said Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian army general and leading strategic analyst.
Kapoor said that while militarization of space by India was at "a comparatively nascent stage," there was an urgent need for a military space command for "persistent surveillance and rapid response."
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Anil Kumar Mathur said, "We are not talking about deploying weapons, but about self-defense." Neither man elaborated on their remarks.
The Indian military does not have its own dedicated spy satellites and uses civilian ones to gather imagery and other intelligence. India has an advanced civilian space program and frequently launches both types of satellites for other countries, including an Israeli spy satellite in January.
Other Indian generals speaking at the conference said a military space race was almost certain.
"With time we will get sucked into a military race to protect our space assets and inevitably there will be a military contest in space," the Indian Express newspaper quoted Lt. Gen. H.S. Lidder as saying.
"In a life-and-death scenario, space will provide the advantage," said Lidder, who heads the military department that deals with space technology.
Ties between India and China — which together have one-third of the world's population — are at their closest since China defeated India in a brief 1962 border war. Last year, trade between India and China grew to $37 billion and their two armies conducted their first joint military exercise.
However, the two nations remain sharply divided over territorial claims dating back to the war. China claims India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh and occupies a chunk of territory in Kashmir that Indian regards as its own.
Talks on the disputed border have gone nowhere, and Kapoor's "statement is in relation to what is happening on the border dispute and the Chinese taking an uncompromising position," Mehta said.
This, along with China's heavy military spending and a growing rivalry for regional influence, has alarmed the Indian military, which has been increasingly gearing up for possible conflict.
India has announced plans to have aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines at sea in the next decade and recently tested nuclear-capable missiles that put China's major cities well in range. It is also reopening air force bases near the Chinese border.