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Waking Up to China’s Space Dream

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China Power

Waking Up to China’s Space Dream

What a China-led space order would look like is something the international community needs to seriously grapple with.

Waking Up to China’s Space Dream
Credit: NASA on Unsplash

Those who believe that China’s space capabilities — to include launches, establishing a presence, and conducting deep space exploration — are underdeveloped or lag behind the United States’ are in for a rude shock. Gone are the days when the U.S. government and private industry enjoyed a monopoly on space vision, capabilities, international partnerships, and entrepreneurship. Today, China is taking the lead in setting the discourse and establishing relevant civilian and military institutions to back a futuristic space vision.

The political vision for space, championed by the Chinese leadership, is to build internal capacity that can support a space presence and establish dominance and industrialization that would in turn enhance the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This prospect is supported at the highest echelon of decision-making, with Lt. Gen. Zhang Yulin, former deputy chief of the armament development department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), now with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF). He has said that “The earth-moon space will be strategically important for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Zhang specified that:

The future of China’s manned space program, is not a moon landing, which is quite simple, or even the manned Mars program which remains difficult, but continual exploration of the earth-moon space with ever developing technology.

This aspect is part of China’s white papers on space, in which space activities and state funding for such activities are closely aligned with national development goals. To boost this power projection capacity in space, Chinese President Xi Jinping has encouraged reform within the PLA to anticipate China’s independent space enterprise. Xi succinctly articulated China’s space activities within his vision of China’s space dream: “The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger. With development of space programs, the Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space…exploring the vast universe, developing space programs, and becoming an aerospace power has always been the dream we’ve been striving for.”

Xi believes that “the spirit of aerospace” is akin to the “spirit of the long march,” instrumental in establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Such a historic connection is significant as it deliberately encourages both state and societal commitments to futuristic state-funded space programs, to include ambitions for a lunar presence, asteroid mining, and deep space exploration. In December 2018, China plans to land a rover on the far side of the moon, which will carry a tin containing seeds of potato and Arabidopsis (a plant connected to cabbage and mustard) and some silkworm eggs, with an aim to conduct the first biological experiment on the lunar surface.

The motivation behind these experiments, according to the mission chief, Liu Hanlong, is to study the process of developing food for space travelers on the lunar surface. Liu specified, “Our experiment might help accumulate knowledge for building a lunar base and long-term residence on the moon.” In a video released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on April 24, China offered its vision of a lunar outpost to be manned by Space Based Solar Power (SBSP). CNSA reflected on the video that “We believe that the Chinese nation’s dream of residing in a ‘lunar palace’ will soon become a reality.” Ye Peijian, head of China’s Lunar Mission, stated that:

The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.

To establish both internal and external support, and legitimacy, for China’s space dream, Xi announced April 24, 2016 as “Space Day,” in commemoration of China’s first satellite, Dong Fang Hong I, that reached for the stars that same day in 1970.

At the same time, China is offering its space station for international collaboration to conduct scientific experiments, in partnership with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). A China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASTC) report specified that it is China’s ambition to become the most developed nation in space technology by 2045.

In such a future, where China establishes space dominance, it is likely that we will see the establishment of China-driven “specially managed zones” and China-led adjudication courts to settle disputes. It is highly likely that China will establish dispute mechanisms for space once it establishes “specially managed zones,” say on the lunar surface, or establishes a permanent space presence. That has been the trajectory of its international initiatives here on earth, to include its behavior in the Antarctic.

We are already witnessing the establishment of two international courts by the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing that came into effect on July 1, 2018 to adjudicate disputes along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The first court based in Shenzhen, China will handle disputes along the maritime portion of the BRI, and the second court based in Xi’an, China will handle disputes along the land-based section.

China is offering to construct the Belt and Road Space Information Corridor for ASEAN and BRI countries. Wu Yanhua, deputy head of CNSA, stated the urgent need for such space-based information cooperation, led by China, in the China-ASEAN Cooperation and Development Forum of the Belt and Road Space Information Corridor in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in September. Furthermore, China hosts the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). 

Given the very deliberate and visible articulation of China’s space ambitions, what does the establishment of the PLA’s SSF mean for China’s Space Dream, power projection capabilities, and influence?

The establishment of the SSF has three specific implications for power projection capabilities for China in space, thereby establishing it as a lead actor.

First, the SSF offers China the capability to establish a co-orbital presence, to include a permanent presence, engage in “area denial of space” to adversaries, jamming of adversary satellites, and most importantly, the projection of military power in space. Such indigenous space military capabilities are backed by China’s growing space presence and ambitions. The SSF, for the first time, brings together China’s growing military space assets into a single unit, aimed at dominance across the spectrum of air, space, and cyber. This the SSF aims to establish by taking advantage of the U.S. military’s overt dependence on space assets and space infrastructure for combat, reconnaissance, navigation, precision targeting, early warning, weather forecasting, and intelligence gathering. All China would need to do to expose U.S. vulnerability is threaten such assets by developing “asymmetric capabilities” to include its 2007 Anti-Satellite Test (ASAT), that demonstrated its ability to down a satellite if required — for example, a U.S. satellite during a conflict on earth. Such ASAT technologies have been further refined in 2010, 2013, and 2014, enhancing their capabilities without generating space debris as did its 2007 test.

Second, by establishing the SSF, China is innovating its military to develop futuristic doctrines, training, and capabilities to back its state-funded space ambitions as well as growing private space industry. In case a dispute breaks out over “resource ownership” in space, the SSF is optimized and structured to respond in a manner that builds upon domain expertise given its focus solely on utilizing space and cyber for optimal ends. Xi in a speech to the SSF in August 2016 stated that “innovation is what we need most in building the strategic support force. Innovation is the fundamental solution.” Xi stressed the significance of building a training regime and augment war-fighting capacities solely focused on domain expertise and focus. To motivate its personnel, the CMC promoted the commander of the SSF, Gao Jin, to general in 2017.

Third, the development of a satellite with a robotic arm that grabbed another Chinese satellite in space in 2013 indicated that such a capacity has dual use and could grab an adversary satellite if required. China has enhanced its capacities for space debris removal through the Aolong-1 debris cleaner, which was onboard the Long March 7 rocket launched in 2016. The Aolong-1 can conduct proximity operations, called Rendezvous Proximity Operations (RPO), to identify and conduct clean up of defunct satellites for active debris removal. While space debris removal and satellite refueling, maintenance, and repair, are benign activities, such Chinese assets are now directed by the SSF. This implies that civilian space capacities can easily switch to military use when required given China’s space program is directed and led by the PLA.

China’s space ambitions indicate that under the leadership of Xi, it is not only establishing capacity to take advantage of the trillion dollar space industry that awaits but also enhancing and streamlining its military capacities for power projection in outer-space.

China has also proclaimed ambitions of colonizing the moon, and establishing norms and regulations for space. This was indicated by the submission of a joint China-Russia draft proposal for the “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” in 2008 and again in 2014. While the move for such a treaty appears noble, an in-depth assessment indicates that it does not include a ban on direct ascent ASAT technologies or terrestrially based space weapons. Moreover, China’s history of signing bilateral agreements with countries it has land disputes with committing to de-escalation and peaceful resolution of disputes, while simultaneously engaging in behavior that is contrary to its signed commitments, do not give us much assurance it will behave any differently in the space domain.

What China aims to achieve from its space ambitions is to establish alternative institutions, investment mechanisms, and capacities that not only challenge U.S. dominance in space but establish a China-led space order that it projects as benefiting the world. While this may not result in a space “arms race” like we saw during the Cold War, it will offer a viable political alternative to the current space order led by the United States.

What a China-led space order would look like is something the international community needs to seriously grapple with. For as Xi directed, the SSF must be subordinate to and serve the “absolute leadership” working within the principles and ideology of the Communist Party of China, an authoritarian political system that does not tolerate any opposition. Is that what we aspire for in the final frontier?