The Politics of China’s Space Power

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The Politics of China’s Space Power

Insights from Lincoln Hines.

The Politics of China’s Space Power
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Lincoln Hines – research scholar at the Department of Government at Cornell University is the 276th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Analyze the role of China’s domestic politics on national space ambitions.

China’s space capabilities serve several strategic goals, including economic development, security, and domestic prestige. Domestic politics, in particular, explain some of China’s most expensive and difficult space goals. Whenever China lands on the far side of the moon or on Mars or sends a human into outer space, the CCP can argue that it is restoring China’s international standing. This is important in the Chinese context due to the nationalist narratives about China’s “Century of Humiliation.” China’s space projects also serve other domestic goals, such as fostering interest in science and technology among China’s youth. Moreover, since these projects require lavish investments, they are attractive for the SOEs [state-owned enterprises] that dominate China’s space industry.

What is the correlation between China’s space power and soft power?

China’s space capabilities provide it some limited soft power. For example, China’s planned space station allows it to provide costly public goods to the international community, allowing other countries to carry out experiments in Low Earth Orbit, without fronting the costs of building and sustaining a space station. China’s space station will also allow China to present itself as an alternative to the United States  ̶  allowing China to claim that it is a more inclusive alternative to the United States, as it will allow both democracies and autocracies alike to participate in its space initiatives. Beyond China’s space station, China’s space technologies provide it other diplomatic tools, such as launch, satellite, and imaging services. More broadly, China’s space accomplishments allow it to present itself as a model and technological leader to developing countries.

Yet, the soft power advantages of China’s space technologies should not be overstated, as other aspects of China’s domestic politics undercut these potential soft power gains. China’s space policymaking ecosystem is beset by bureaucratic divisions, which hinder its ability to project a coherent image abroad. For example, in 2007, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was caught off guard by China’s anti-satellite test  ̶  suggesting that bureaucratic fragmentation and mismanagement undermined the broader soft power goals of China’s MFA. Similarly, China’s handling of other challenges such as space debris undermines the government’s efforts to portray China as a responsible member of the international community. Most recently, the launch of China’s core module received perhaps less international media coverage than did the uncontrolled re-entry of its Long March 5B rocket.

Last, it is difficult for China to gain soft power due to the close ties between its space program and its military. Without a truly civilian space agency such as NASA, outside powers may interpret Beijing’s gains in outer space through a security lenses  ̶  increasing threat perceptions rather than increasing Chinese soft power.

Explain how China’s space policy factors into Xi Jinping’s leadership legacy.

In the post-Mao era, space propaganda has been tied more closely to the CCP rather than any individual leader. But as Xi abandons intraparty norms and seeks to become president for life, China’s space accomplishments may become increasingly tied more closely with Xi’s leadership. Although many of China’s most ambitious projects precede Xi’s time in office by decades (i.e., China’s space station), he can reap the domestic benefits of these programs. Xi already ties China’s space accomplishments with its other rhetorical initiatives, such as the “China Dream.”

How does the CCP use China’s space accomplishments to stoke nationalism?

As I have found in my research, China’s space accomplishments served as a valuable form of domestic propaganda since the very beginning of China’s space program. Each Chinese leader has used China’s accomplishments in space to promote their domestic policies. For China’s leadership today, China’s success in outer space shows that through the CCP’s leadership, China is achieving “national rejuvenation.” China’s government promotes its space program heavily to domestic audiences through state media, parades, China’s annual Spring Festival Gala, national museums, documentaries, and even creating a National Space Day holiday in 2016.

Identify three areas where China’s space advancements can escalate China-U.S. rivalry.

First, although the United States also has achieved more ambitious feats in outer space than China (even flying a helicopter on Mars), China’s continued space success provides rhetorical justification for further investments in the U.S. space initiatives. Advocates of expanding American space activities can point to China’s space program as “evidence” that the United States is “falling behind” – however disconnected from reality these claims may be.

Second, U.S.-China competition may also heat up diplomatic competition between the two countries. Should the United States defund the International Space Station, China’s space station could become the only game in town. This may place additional pressure on the United States to continue funding the ISS or to fund other grand initiatives such as the Artemis program or the Lunar Gateway program.

Furthermore, if the United States does not provide leadership in crafting rules and norms governing state and private behavior in outer space, China may seek to fill this gap. In the absence of cooperation between the two powers, divergent visions about appropriate behavior in outer space may fragment international efforts to govern this domain.

The third and perhaps most worrisome aspect of U.S.-China space competition is in the security realm. Considering the United States’ heavy reliance on space capabilities, in the event of a conflict with the United States, China would be tempted to target American satellites. These satellites can perform multiple functions, including serving as early-warning sensors for detecting a nuclear strike. This entanglement means that a strike on American satellites could be mistaken as evidence of a preemptive nuclear strike, raising the specter for accidental nuclear escalation. Even if a space conflict between the United States and China did not escalate to such an extreme level, the resulting debris from a kinetic strike on a satellite would threaten to damage or destroy any satellites (civilian or military) located in this orbital trajectory.