China’s growth trajectory overall and more particularly in the space domain has been impressive. However, John Hickman’s categorical assertions in a recent Foreign Policy article that China is catching up and “may surpass the United States… to become the world’s preeminent spacefaring power” seems to us a touch far-fetched.
Certainly Hickman is right about Chinese determination and the “unquantifiable” factor of “an extraordinary sense of historical grievance” being a major driver of Chinese space dreams. China attributes its “military technological backwardness” to its past national humiliation at the hands of other major powers. Indeed, this is an important part of the national psyche and helps drives the Chinese space programs.
The problem lies in the tools needed to turn determination into material outcomes. The most important: China has nothing near the commercial space sector that the U.S. boasts. Sure, NASA now gets less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, but much of America’s true capabilities are embedded in its private sector, which plays a much larger role than its equivalent does in China’s space sector and gives the U.S. a major advantage in space technology innovation. Not to mention the fact that the high-tech and defense sectors also contribute and the U.S. lead there is not going to disappear anytime in the next several decades.
China is taking steps to beef up its own commercial space sector (read: state-owned enterprises) but it still lacks the massive private-sector investment in R&D that will be vital to sustaining the success of any space program. For now, China must rely on public investment to advance its space program.
A Need for Innovation
More importantly, China does not innovate, it copies. That helps it catch up, but without innovation China will have difficulty taking over the top spot. Its growth looks like a parabola, approaching the number one spot before falling away.
Although China’s space program has come a long way since its launch failures in 1995 and 1996, that dramatic rise has been aided by the reverse engineering of Russian technology. For instance, many observers believe that the Shenzhou space capsule that heralded China’s manned space flight was based largely on the Russian Soyuz capsule. However, China’s ability to catch up with the other space superpowers by copying alone is fast approaching its limits. This is not helped by U.S. moves to isolate China with regard to international cooperation in space. The latter’s access to the latest technologies has consequently been restricted, a fact that even the Chinese are realizing, reflected in their recent drive to focus more on innovation.
Moreover, China lags significantly behind the U.S. generally in scientific innovation. Consider, as an example, that the U.S. is at the vanguard of revolutionizing manufacturing techniques with the use of 3D printing, which it intends to utilize in the International Space Station, or the involvement of NASA scientists in experiments that could bring them closer to the development of a warp-speed engine.
If ambition is cited as a factor for the possibility of Chinese dominance in space, then surely one must consider the U.S. aspiration to explore the far reaches of space. Even if China is quickly catching up with U.S. dominance in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), its program is largely restricted to that realm. The U.S. meanwhile has set its sights beyond our planet’s periphery.
While American satellites are exploring the far reaches of our solar system, with the Voyager 1 having reached interstellar space, closer to Earth satellites belonging to the U.S. and its partners outmatch Chinese satellites in number and scope. The former owns more than half of all satellites currently orbiting our planet. In terms of their capabilities, American satellites are still far superior to their Chinese counterparts.
Concerns regarding the decommissioning of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program may also be unfounded. NASA has already tapped the commercial sector to fill the gap in its human spaceflight capability. In the final phase of the Commercial Crew integrated Capability program (CCiCap), NASA signed an agreement with the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies and the Boeing Company to develop commercial spaceships to launch American astronauts into orbit by 2015. This is not a sign of weakness; it is an indicator that U.S. national interests are closely aligned with the interests of the country’s commercial space sector.
In contrast, China’s commercial space sector is still very much nascent. In fact, China’s space sector is comparable to the Russian model: state sponsorship and commensurate state interference. Even though Russia continues to be one of the foremost space powers, it has experienced a sustained decline owing to financial constraints and manpower concerns. For China, the PLA’s stakes in aerospace companies are likely to encourage protectionist tendencies, which in turn block the emergence of other innovative thinkers. An underdeveloped private industry will limit the potential for innovation.
China’s impressive ascent in space capability has been driven by massive state financing. While this has undeniably worked well to date, the sustainability of this model as the Chinese economy rebalances is questionable. If state support is capped, or tapers, then with only a modest private sector to fill the gap it is difficult to see how China will sustain the extraordinary progress it has made over the past 15 years.
And finally another factor that must not be discounted is experience. American astronauts have logged thousands of hours of space flight. That gives them long experience dealing with issues China is just beginning to encounter.
Future Potential – With Reforms
Yet despite these limitations, China’s space program could continue to impress given sufficient time and patience. Maintaining the growth trajectory will, however, require reform. More opportunities and incentives for private-sector participation will encourage innovation, while reducing the burden on the public purse. While a political mandate has been issued for innovative thinking, Beijing needs to make the requisite institutional and structural changes that will allow that to happen. Those changes may also help protect the Chinese space program from economic vicissitudes.
In fact, China has shown it understands the importance of commercializing its space efforts. Fortunately, it does enjoy some tremendous commercial opportunities. In Latin America, countries like Venezuela are looking to the Chinese to supply space technology and launch services. There is also demand in Africa, which has already developed strong economic ties with the Chinese. Given that China also has the fastest-growing market for commercial space services on its doorstep, namely in Southeast Asia, there is ample potential to generate revenue to fund R&D. China should aggressively seek potential clients around the world and invest heavily in education.
Meanwhile, China could try to attract technical talent from abroad. This will, however, require more than generous remuneration, since it will be tough to match the American private sector in that regard. For China, this should be a long-term plan for educating the next generation of engineers. If the Chinese are willing to invest time and resources, a new generation could innovate and develop new technology, instead of reverse engineering, creating a slow but more certain path to preeminence.
Finally, dominance in space requires more than just technology. China will need to become a persuasive force in the making of space policy, and this in turn will require that it demonstrate an ability to act responsibly. Beijing’s 2007 anti-satellite test and the resulting space debris was an example of what not to do, especially as the U.S. managed to shoot down a satellite with minimal residual space debris.
So, yes, China has clearly made very significant strides in its space capability. However, it is still a long way short of matching U.S. capabilities and alarm bells need not ring just yet. China’s rise is a function of heavy state investment based on a model that is unlikely to be sustainable. The American model of public-private partnership is more innovative and less of a taxpayer burden. China will need to undertake significant reforms before it supplants the U.S. as the world’s leading space power.
Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow in Security Studies at the Observer Research Foundation. Arvind K. John is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation’s center for Strategic Studies.