China’s Air Force will begin to develop “offensive operations” in space, a high-ranking military official has said in a seeming departure from Beijing’s recent opposition to space militarisation.

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang said on Sunday that space militarisation, or the development of weapons and defensive technology in outer space, was a “historic inevitability” and that “competition between military forces is moving towards outer space”.

He said “some developing countries”, in addition to “major air force powers”, were changing their military strategies to improve their space capabilities, a remark analysts said was likely directed at India and the United States.

“Logically, it seems that he is alluding to India’s space capabilities,” said Brigadier Arun Sahgal, an expert on China’s military at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Mr. Xu’s comments, made in an interview with China’s state-run Xinhua agency ahead of the PLA Air Force’s 60th anniversary, are a departure from recent positions Beijing has adopted, at least publicly, on space militarisation.

In January 2007, Beijing received widespread international criticism for carrying out a test in which it destroyed a weather satellite using a medium-range ballistic missile. This was believed to be the first satellite intercept test in two decades, and led to fears that it would lead to an outer space arms race. Since then, Beijing has sought to downplay its space programme, calling for “peaceful development” in outer space and backing an international treaty to limit space militarisation.

Against this trend, Mr. Xu’s comments calling for China to develop its space weapons capabilities have surprised analysts. In the interview, Mr. Xu said the PLA Air Force was also working to improve its detection and early warning, air strike and anti-missile air defence capabilities. “Superiority in space and in air would mean, to a certain extent, superiority over the land and the oceans,” he said. He added: “Regardless of its extent of development, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force will never pose a military threat to any country.”

Asked about China’s developments in space militarisation last week, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik said India was against space militarisation. “In fact, the entire world is against this,” he said.

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