China’s Race to “Dominate” Space

December 21, 2016

Scott N. Romaniuk, Tobias J. Burgers, Shih-Yueh Yang

space, cc Flickr Siyamalan, modified,


60 years ago China set out on its space program with the establishment of the 5th Academy of the Ministry of National Defense. At its helm was rocket scientist Qian Xuesen – also known as Tsien Hsue-shen – who is now regarded as the father of China’s space and missile programs. 14 years later, Beijing sent its very first satellite (the Dongfanghong-1) into space and its first astronaut followed on October 15, 2003.

40 years after Apollo 11 embarked upon the first spaceflight that led to the lunar module landing with commanders Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, China successfully launched its very own space lab module called Tiangong-1. Not long afterward, Tiangong-2 made its way into orbit.

For decades, China appeared to be trailing behind or merely catching-up to the world’s two major space pioneers – the United States (US) and Russia – until this past August 2016, when China assumed its position as the world’s first country to launch a quantum satellite called “Micius.” Micius is designed to “establish ultra-secure quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground,” noted China’s state news agency, Xinhua. Furthermore, “It could also conduct experiments on the bizarre features of quantum theories, such as entanglement.” As a result, Micius has fortified essential communications lines between Earth and space.

The quantum field is still embryonic, but China has quickly forged its position as a leader, setting the overall pace of research, and it could become the leader in establishing a worldwide network of laboratories dedicated to furthering quantum research in both space and the international space race. Shortly after China sent its satellite into orbit several months ago, China rocketed the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft into orbit from Jiuquan base for the longest space mission China has undertaken to this day. It connected with Tiangong-2, hosting two Chinese “taikonauts” for just over a month-long stay. This achievement follows on the previous mission of Tiangong-1, which carried Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang, and Wang Yaping (China’s first woman in space).

China has shown no signs of receding in its space activities. In 2018, Beijing plans to launch one of the main components of its future habitable space satellite or space station, which will become a permanent feature of Earth’s spacescape. China’s sights are also set on Mars, with a small, unmanned rover destined for the red planet which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) claims to have an atmosphere. If successfully reached, China’s space agency, China National Space Administration (CNSA), will be the 5th to reach the planet named after the Roman god of war. Furthermore, in 2022, China plans to send its permanent space station into orbit, to be followed by a mission to the Moon in 2025. This signals the unwavering determination of China to establish an entire spectrum of “firsts” in the context of space exploration. It already became one of the leaders in space, yet Beijing’s focus sets it apart from its Cold War rivals; they focused more on space as a means of geopolitical and popular rivalry, besting the other in a show of political, technological, and economic superiority, in order to illustrate the virtue of their respective value systems.

China, on the other hand, has set its sights on the long-term of space exploration with the view to establish a permanent presence in space. Those wheels are already in motion. Only a few years after China plans to launch its space station some 250 miles above Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) is set to expire. NASA Director, Charles Bolden, Jr., announced the ISS will be finished in 2028, thought the date could be sooner. The life expectancy of ISS has already been extended several times.

The end of the ISS means a lot of work for NASA and its partners. It will likely have to be brought back down the same way it was put up: piece-by-piece. Building began back in 1998 and even then it was established that the entire structure would eventually have to come back down. Missions centering on its deconstruction and movement back to Earth will come at a high price. The original task of putting the satellite up in space required no less than 40 missions.

When the ISS comes down, China will maintain the predominant presence in space, and will have successfully overshadowed a number of NASA’s previous achievements while at the same time establishing a considerable distance over other countries space programs. While NASA’s budgets have been diminishing over previous years, China has shown no signs of tripping over the financial costs associated with its space ventures. Beijing’s presence will put a damper on Washington’s commitment to its space presence.

Over the past 15 years, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama pledged to maintain America’s presence in space. The US will be hard-pressed to even temper its decline in the face of China’s burgeoning space program. The Apollo space shuttle is a relic. The STS-135 signaled the final mission of the American Space Shuttle program, using the shuttle Atlantis for its final ISS logistics mission. The 2004 Vision for Space Exploration was supposed to have been Project Constellation, using the Ares 1 and Ares 2 launch vehicles in addition to the Orion Spacecraft. That program was eventually cancelled. Subsequent programs centered mainly on bringing the necessary equipment into space to service the ISS.

If the stage is set for intensive geopolitical rivalry in space between China and other countries, the major question would center on which side would intensify that rivalry. China’s primary objectives are to establish a permanent presence and to generate resources. Its long-term goals would not converge well with geopolitical rivalry, given its strategic interests and current position. Beijing is open to cooperating with other states in it space programs. Unlike the US, who welcomed astronauts from 15 countries, aboard the ISS, which was supported by facilities in Canada, Spain, Russia, Denmark, Japan, Switzerland, and numerous others, China has so far not barred anyone from potentially setting foot on its space station. Federal law prohibits NASA from working with the CNSA and Chinese citizens affiliated with China’s space program.

Despite its friendly disposition devoid of directly confronting or challenging the space ambitions of other countries, particularly the US, China is maintaining the view to further leaps and bounds in the space realm unilaterally if need be. Not only does Beijing want its “taikonauts” to be walking on the moon in just over a decade, it aims to be the first to land humans on Mars. The feedback effect of China’s space missions will be enormous but will likely need a great deal of time to build momentum, with newer and more sophisticated robotics, avionics, and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies likely to emerge.

We can expect those developments to have many positive effects for other governments as well, providing them with critical information about weather patterns and climate changes, better and safer communications, enhanced navigation systems, and critical platforms that should augment existing security and defense instruments. Beijing has aptly eyeballed the area of advanced technologies as a critical aspect of China’s future economy. In this, it has the ability to inspire over thousands, even tens-of-thousands, of private ventures.

Further research and development figures prominently in China’s current Five-Year Plan and those to follow, with China’s latest satellite leading the charge in space science exploration. This is truly a collaborative venture, with Chinas’ Academy of Sciences (CAS), the CAS’ Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics (SITP), and the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), all playing a collaborative role. In its approach to space science, China has done a fine job in bringing together a broad spectrum of institutions and organizations, sort of like a “full spectrum” approach.

Director-General of China’s National Space Science Center, Wu Ji, along with many other top researchers in the country requested that Beijing step-up its spending in the space science sector to support China’ progress. The request was made to triple its nearly 5 billion yuan ($700 million USD) investment between 2011 and 2015, to a minimum of 15.6 billion yuan (over $2 billion USD) between 2026 and 2030. NASA’s final 2016 science budget was $5.5 billion USD and is projected to oscillate between $5.6 billion and $5.7 billion over the next four years.

With this support, China is poised to make an actual “great leap forward” but in a way that could benefit each and every person on the planet. China has made a gargantuan departure from its space science spending a decade ago. Further intensive research in the area of communications could catapult existing systems and computational capacities to levels never before experienced. But those systems should be expected to provide the very latest and best to China first, particularly China’s defense and security sectors/institutions.

Despite the impracticalities still associated with space science investment, China is continuing its pursuit of benefits that would likely be realized years down the line. Perhaps the mystery behind China’s space program is what worries people most, including those in the US and allied countries. It is possible that China turns its spending to more practical utilities that yield immediate benefit, for instance, rockets and missiles, military satellite systems, and other types of military craft and apparatuses. Perhaps China has the potential to develop a new “NASA” or maybe concern is merely driven by China’s space science research acceleration at the same time the US slows down or “struggles” to maintain its pace.

US congressional members, during a space subcommittee hearing, recently asked if America is losing the space race to China. Washington will simply be unable to extract the same level of potential political and economic benefit from its space ambitions if they fail to stack-up to those of China. Vincent Chan, a Managing Director of Credit Suisse in Hong Kong, noted that in the past 15 years, “China has leapfrogged other countries in terms of technology development” and that, “[t]he potentially disruptive implications of China’s innovative drive should not be underestimated.”

In 2015, the World Economic Forum reported, “[i]ndicators show that China has what it takes to rise to the forefront of global innovation. This includes soaring R&D spending (China’s R&D expenditure reached 1.18 trillion yuan ($193 billion) in 2013, a 15% increase year-on-year, and is set to overtake the European Union and the United States to be the top R&D-invested country by the end of this decade), a large number of corporate patents, a new generation of entrepreneurial CEOs and high number of engineering and science graduates.”

China’s “Long March” to space began over half-a-century ago, when Mao Zedong sought to rocket China into third place as a country with a satellite orbiting Earth. Beijing has put more than 100 satellites into space since the 1970s. As mentioned previously China today is looking at a number of “firsts” and has been lauded for becoming one of the world’s foremost defense technological power. The country’s technological innovation and development in the space industry has set a trajectory of “upward and onward” that China has so far fulfilled. Beijing also recently flipped the switch on its “Tianyan” (“Heavenly Eye”) – the world’s largest aperture radio telescope occupying a space equivalent to 30 football fields in size. Beijing exclusively owns the intellectual-property rights of that awesome piece of technology, which costs somewhere in the vicinity of 1.2 billion yuan (approximately $180 million USD).

In contrast to previous space projects undertaken by the US and Russia, China’s space ventures in the contemporary period extend beyond the confines of prestige and status. They have the potential to harness real military power. Planning a network of satellites in the coming years, Beijing is slowly creeping toward a position to supercharge its quantum computer network, building a magnificent quantum communications network reaching over 1,000 miles. The University of Science and Technology of China’s Professor Pan Jianwei recently explained how “China is completely capable of making full use of quantum communications in a regional war. The direction of development in the future calls for using relay satellites to realize quantum communications and control that covers the entire army.”

Michael Raska, at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, spoke of China’s immense network capable of serving “as a dual-use strategic asset that may advance the [PLA’s] capacity for power projection through a constellation of space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, tactical warning and attack assessment; command, control, and communications; navigation and positioning, and environmental monitoring.”

The network ascribes China a superposition of power in which, “establishing ‘space dominance’ (zhi tian quan),” writes Raska, “is an essential enabler for ‘information dominance’ (zhi xinxi quan) – a key prerequisite for allowing the [People’s Liberation Army] PLA to seize air and naval superiority in contested areas.” What we are seeing now is the result of China’s careful observation of wars fought by other states over the past several decades, wars such as Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, US/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military action in the Balkans, America’s ensuing 9/11 wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and long strand of counterterrorism/counterinsurgency operations and campaigns), and even Russia’s sundry military engagements). Vietnam and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war also served as valuable lessons for the PLA.

Beijing has long-since established that the key to winning wars is zhi xinxi quan, and determined that wars of the future will be “local wars under informationized conditions” (xinxihua tiaojian xia jubu zhanzheng). In short, the exploitation of information leads to the successful outcome of wars irrespective of where they are fought. Zhi xinxi quan is also a fundamental determinant of defensive systems protecting a country against military aggression. Augmenting the military aptitudes of the PLA has become a priority in China, occupying a part of PLA military/strategic doctrine that complements its formal doctrine for military space operations.

One such project demonstrating China’s willingness to pursue this path is its new 35-meter-diameter parabolic antenna/space-monitoring base, located in Patagonia, Argentina (coordinates: 38.1914°S, 70.1495°W). The facility is a tracking, telemetry, and command center run by a PLA unit. The facility is outfitted with the latest technology, complete with accommodations for military personnel and state-of-the-art power generator valued at some $10 million USD. Its purported function is the facilitation of deep-space exploration and the eventual lunar mission but will have, according to Beijing, “no military use.” That is not to say the base cannot be used to support military operations of various sorts.

Beijing need only look through the history books, reading up on the different courses of action the US pursued to boost its military clout in different places and at different point in time. During the Kosovo intervention alongside NATO, the US military fielded dozens of satellites. Those were used synchronically to great effect, enabling the US military and those of its close allies during the campaign to employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along with other aircraft to basically see every single thing that moves in and around the battlespace – solely with the ironic exception of the Chinese embassy bombing, which was the result of faulty intelligence.

During a 2015 Congressional testimony, Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, Dean Cheng, explained that, [s]pace systems are judged to have provided 70 percent of battlefield communications, 80 percent of battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance, and 100 percent of meteorological data, and did so through all weather conditions, 24 hours a day.” Such extensive oversight cannot only enhance one’s strike capabilities, but also substantially augment the precision factor of offensive systems.

He underscored China’s development of “a number of anti-satellite systems, including a demonstrated capacity for direct-ascent kinetic-kill vehicles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, and cyber tools that could interfere with space control systems. Future developments may include more soft-kill options that would lead to ‘mission kills’ on satellites, preventing them from gathering or transmitting information, rather than physically destroying the system.”

China’s potential space dominance is in a sense misleading, as dominating space is a means of dominating other (terrestrial) areas. China’s government and military institutions repeatedly indicate that dominating space offers an attractive way of managing that which what takes place on the Earth’s surface. This is true with considerable crossover between civilian/peaceful and military areas. The same logic has been applied within China’s space programs, intertwining civilian and defense sector efforts and activities. “China’s space program is integrated. Unlike the United States,” writes Ashley J. Tellis, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “where a significant divide exists between civilian and military space activities, and where diversity, heterogeneity, and atomistic competition are the norm in both realms, civilian and military space programs in China are not only centrally directed but are also mutually reinforcing by design.

Just as China is able to use space-based systems to improve its offensive military capabilities, it can also increase its defensive military capabilities. If those systems are improved over time, which will surely be the case, China could prevent another country from coming even remotely close to its space-based systems. The development of co-orbital jammers and other systems capable of interfering with enemy satellites, for instance, and even hijacking them could go a long way in maintaining China’s space dominance. In this, its ongoing space science and exploration programs could turn its superposition of power into a superposition of superpower.

Fortunately, the very nature of space technology means that so-called “space dominance” is quite difficult to achieve. If a country wants to prevent an adversary with the same level of space technology from utilizing the space, that opponent can retaliate with relative ease. Both sides would be denied from the space. This rationale explains why there was no space arms race during the Cold War, despite the fact that anti-satellite systems existed. Little has changed since. The prospect of waging a “space war” in the foreseeable future remains low given the costs that would be involved. While leading space actors will not and cannot monopolize space, we can expect that space will remain part of the global commons.

China’s space program can no longer be described as “a mystery within a maze.” There is little doubt that China’s space ambitions present the US with a daunting challenge to check the rise of China as a soaring power even if the US possesses a limited range of immediate and long-term options as a response. But this does not spell the end of America’s role or presence in space, or that of any other country, for that matter. What ought to be considered, however, is whether or not China is better suited to lead future space science ventures and programs, even if it means China may be seen as “dominating” what has been popularized as the ultimate or final frontier.

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Tags: Space Race
  • Tony

    Read the “Aztlan Protocol”. It is an interesting take on the consequences of controlling space.


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