The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is one of a handful of players in the space arena that possesses the combination of high-level political interest, financial wherewithal
and technical capability to constitute a space power that is capable of undertaking space operations on its own terms.
In terms of political support, beginning with Mao Zedong, Chinese leadership has consistently devoted resources towards establishing an independent space capability. China’s space program began in 1956, in the midst of the U.S.-Soviet space race. Mao and other senior Chinese leaders committed the PRC to developing “two bombs, one satellite.” Internal political upheavals such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)
disrupted space efforts for a time, but paramount leader
Deng Xiaoping’s reforms made space once again a national priority, a stance subsequently supported by both Presidents JiangZemin and HuJintao.
The China National Space Agency (CNSA), officially responsible for all civilian space matters, is part of the State Council, the Chinese executive branch. Just a
s important, Chinese space launches are a responsibility of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a key player in Chinese politics. China’s manned space launches, for example, are officially undertaken under the aegis of the General Armaments Department, one of the four key General Departments at the top of the PLA.
China also has
proven willing to devote significant resources to building its space capabilities. CNSA Vice Administrator LuoGe, during his visit to the United States earlier this year, indicated that China spends some $500 million annually on space. This figure, almost certainly representing only a fraction of actual Chinese space spending, nonetheless places Chinese space spending on a par with that of Russia. Using
western estimates of annual Chinese spending, which ranges from $1.4 billion to
$2.2 billion, makes China comparable to France ($1.6 billion) or even Japan ($2.5 billion).
Nor is it simply a matter of money. Chinese space efforts represent the commitment of human capital. While China is graduating substantial numbers of engineers and scientists, the decade-long turmoil of the Cultural Revolution
left China with a deficit in terms of scientific personnel. That the PRC would devote a portion of its limited supply of scientific cadre to space endeavors is a reflection of its importance.
As a result of this sustained support, the PRC today has a multi-faceted space capability. It has one of the few programs to support three launch sites, at Jiuquan, Xichang
and Taiyuan. From these sites, China’s current family of Long March launchers can place satellites into low
Earth orbit, as well as geo- and sun-synchronous orbit. And China can manufacture those satellites on its own.
China currently fields an array of domestically produced satellites. These include communications satellites (the Dongfanghong series) and meteorological satellites (the Fengyun series). China also has orbited its own satellite navigation system (the Beidou series). Although this active system’s capabilities are more regional than global, and probably lacks
the accuracy of the Global Positioning System (GPS)
, it nonetheless makes China only the third nation to possess its own space-based navigation system. China also has developed a range of
Earth-resource and -imaging satellites, providing it with an indigenous ability to monitor terrestrial developments. These provide information for Chinese infrastructure development (e.g., railroad and highway planning), but also have military implications as well. China also has
devoted efforts to developing small
satellites, including a dedicated launcher (the Kaituozhe).
The PRC utilizes this substantial range of space capabilities for several ends. One central role is supporting national economic development. As the PRC government’s 2000 Chinese Space White Paper, “China’s Space Activities,”
noted, “The Chinese government has all along regarded the space industry as an integral part of the state’s comprehensive development strategy. As a developing country, China’s fundamental tasks are developing its economy and continuously pushing forward its modernization drive.” These same sentiments have since been echoed by senior Chinese space officials.
The space program also serves to foster Chinese science and technology, a cornerstone for long-term development of the nation’s
economy. China’s space objectives are part of Plan 863, the state-sponsored science and technology development effort begun under Deng Xiaoping. This effort is intended to improve China’s overall economic performance and level of
science and technology
sophistication by nurturing developments in eight key areas, including aerospace.
The Chinese also envision a military role for their space capabilities to support the PLA’s C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) activities. Chinese military writings suggest that, in their analysis, a key reason for American military success from Operation Desert Shield through the more recent Iraq War has been its ability to exploit space-based systems. The most recent PRC Defense White Paper, “China’s National Defense in 2004” released by the State Council Information Office,
talks a great deal about the need for the PLA to undertake “informationalized warfare,” a term which apparently includes the ability to similarly exploit space. At the same time, however, Chinese writings suggest that the emphasis remains on developing dual-use capabilities. As the same Defense White Paper notes, defense-related science, technologies and industries, including specifically space, need to facilitate the development of the national economy, as well as meet military requirements.
Perhaps least noticed, however, is the Chinese use of their space systems as a diplomatic lever. China has utilized its space program to forge or strengthen ties to a variety of other nations.
China, for example, was one of the first nations to endorse the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization
, which includes Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand. Some of China’s first overseas facilities were established in Namibia and Kiribati (since closed) to support the Shenzhou manned space program. The Shenzhou program itself benefited from Russo-Chinese cooperation, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. China and Brazil jointly developed the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite
also known as the Ziyuan series of imaging satellites, which allows for near-real-time surveillance and imaging capabilities. China also has
engaged Europe’s space efforts, both in bilateral ties (e.g., France and Sweden), as well as the European Space Agency.
This has not been without its setbacks, however. The recent European decision to have the Galileo Supervisory Authority (a European-only organization) replace the Galileo Joint Undertaking (of which China was a member) when the latter’s charge expires has apparently aroused significant Chinese resentment. This has led to reports that the PRC will develop a Chinese geopositioning system that could potentially interfere with both Galileo and GPS.
China’s expanding capabilities, coupled with its increasing interaction with other space powers, make it a player that cannot be ignored.
Doubts about its intentions, exacerbated by Chinese reluctance or inability to provide accurate data on such basic aspects as its space budget, raise questions about what role the PRC might play in the future. Given the increasing global reliance on space assets for economic as well as military purposes, whether the Chinese leadership chooses to increase the transparency of its space program is likely to affect perceptions of both Beijing’s capabilities and intentions, with attendant implications for future space development s inside and outside China.
Dean Cheng is a senior Asia analyst at CNA Corp, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.