China’s Ascendancy to a Space Power

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 8

"Our Past, Our Present, Our Future"

2007 registered another major step in China’s relentless pursuit of space prowess. On October 24, 2007 a Chinese Changzheng (Long March) 3A rocket was launched from the Xichang launch site in Sichuan Province, sending the country’s first moon exploring Chang’e-1 spacecraft into the lunar orbit. The first lunar probe will be followed by the launch of a lunar rover for a soft landing by 2012 and a second rover in 2017 that is to collect lunar soil and stone samples for research.

China’s long march to the moon reflects Beijing’s ambitious plan in joining the ranks of the world’s leading space powers. As laid out in the “Eleventh Five Years Space Development Plan” in February 2007, implementing manned space flight and lunar exploration is placed front and center among the six space development objectives, which emphasize innovation of space science and its continued development capabilities, and international cooperation.

China has become a recognized space-faring nation with major achievements and ambitious future plans and scheduled activities. It presents both opportunities for international cooperation but also poses serious challenges for space security. Like all other major powers, China’s space program contains both the commercial and military components, and is driven by a host of economic, prestige and strategic considerations.

This brief provides an overview of China’s civilian space program in the past few years and planned activities during the country’s 11th Five-Year Plan of the Space Science Program, assesses its potentials and limitations, and discusses Chinese motivations for its military space program and its perspective on space weaponization.

China’s Space Odyssey

China has achieved major milestones in its space program in the past five years. It has become only the third country after the United States and Russia to have successfully launched manned spacecraft, with the Shenzhou V and VII flight. The Chang’e-1 launch continues the three-phase space program as laid out in “Project 921” that not only aims at building China into a major space power but also constitutes a part of the broader plan of promoting science innovation, economic development and national security [1]. President Hu Jintao, in his speech at the grand ceremony marking the success of the Chang’e-1 launch, called on the Chinese scientific community to concentrate on “building an innovation-oriented country,” recognizing “independent innovation” as the key to “building up comprehensive national strength” [2].

The successful launch of Chang’e-1 into the lunar orbit displays a major accomplishment in China’s space science and innovation in recent years. According to Chinese scientists in charge of the Moon Exploration Project, the launch and orbiting of Chang’e-1 into deep space represent major breakthroughs in six key areas: orbit design; directional attitude control; adaptability to the peculiarity of the space environment; the response to the influence of the lunar eclipse; long-range telemetry, tracking and control (TT&C); and reverse engineering of scientific data (People’s Daily, November 29, 2007; Jiefangjun Bao, October 25, 2007).

China also seeks to leverage the spin-off effects of its space programs to support the research and development of new science and innovation. Sun Jiadong, the chief architect of the lunar satellite project, notes that the lunar exploration program involves and depends on a series of breakthroughs such as long-distance data transmission and telecommunication, sensor technology, thermal control, and space nuclear power, among others. These in turn can be applied and therefore contribute to both civilian and military fields, bringing significant benefits to industrial and economic development (Jiefangjun Bao, October 25, 2007).

Commercial spin-off and international cooperation are also featured in China’s long-term space program. China has remained a major contender in offering international satellite launch service since the 1990s, using its Long March rocket series. Clearly, the successful launches of both the Shenzhou-series spacecraft and the Chang’e-1 have promoted the launch vehicle’s credibility and reliability, with the $450 million contract to build and launch a 5-ton DFH-4 (Dongfanghong, or East Is Red) satellite known as Nigcomsat-1 for Nigeria, the recent launch of Chinasat 6B last July, and the scheduled 2011 launch of a spacecraft for Indonesia’s Indosat marking the return of Chinese commercial launch services (Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 9, 2007) [3].

Beijing is also seeking cooperation with major and emerging space powers. Sino-Russian cooperation has been indispensable in China’s space advancement over the past decade and that cooperation is expected to continue. In addition, China has maintained and seeks to expand international space cooperation with other countries. China has signed cooperation agreements with Argentina, Canada, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, and Ukraine and has exchange programs with Algeria, Chile, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Peru. China was instrumental in launching the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) in late October 2005 that includes eight countries (People’s Daily, October 28, 2005) [4].

Major current programs include the CBERS (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite) project, with a number of satellites already launched in 1999 and 2001. China provided 70 percent of the funding [5]. In September 2003, China was invited to participate in the Galileo project by contributing 230 million euros. While the move reflected both the political—comprehensive and strategic partnership between China and the EU—and economic—China’s market potential—considerations, the Chinese were also driven by the military and dual-use technology transfers that it could acquire as part of the deal, which explains U.S. opposition to the EU initiative [6]. China also has worked with the European Space Agency on a range of projects, including the “Dragon Program” and the joint Double Star mission [7].

China’s emergence as a space-faring nation has created the opportunity for Sino-U.S. cooperation, especially at a time when the Bush administration has announced ambitious plans to return to the moon and further the exploration of Mars. Yet given the nature of space technology and continuing U.S. concerns over China’s growing military capabilities, such cooperation is at best limited and highly vulnerable to changes in bilateral relations. Politics aside, the issue of dual-use technology transfers, the dominant role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China’s space program, and the Chinese military’s pursuit of asymmetrical capability are obvious impediments for full-fledged bilateral space cooperation [8].

With the controversial ASAT test in January 2007, prospects for Sino-U.S. space cooperation are all but lost. If anything, the test reinforces arguments by those who advocate tighter controls on technology transfers to China, including in the space area (Washington Times, February 2, 2007; Reuters, January 26, 2007). Bilateral space cooperation has been put on hold and likely will remain that way for some time to come. But that will not prevent China from continuing its space pursuit, including its military program and space weapons development.

Despite its achievements and ambitious plans, China’s space program still faces major challenges. Its budget remains small. The estimated allocation for the first phase of the lunar exploration project is around 2 billion yuan. But the more serious constraints are technological. The problem in China’s propulsion system has been blamed for a six-month launch delay of Chang’e-1, ceding first place to Japan in Asia’s race to the moon (Aviation Weekly & and Space Technology, June 11, 2007). The one-year mission of the Chang’e-1 will continue to test China’s TT&C system as well. Overall, China’s space technology still lags behind major space powers such as the United States and Russia (Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 29, 2007) [9].

The Chinese space program will likely continue apace in the coming years. A 2006 government white paper on space states that the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) and the National Guideline for Medium- and Long-term Plan for Science and Technology Development (2006-2020) have both identified the space industry as a priority area for developments and set new targets in the coming years. In particular, Beijing aims to develop powerful, new-generation thrust carrier rockets; to start and implement a high-resolution Earth observation system; to develop a satellite remote-sensing ground system; to improve the “Beidou” navigation satellite system; and to launch geostationary orbit telecommunication satellites, among others [10].

Space: The New Frontier in Future Warfare?

China’s January 2007 ASAT test has drawn strong international reactions and raised a number of important issues. These range from concerns over China’s capabilities and intentions as a space-faring nation, its ongoing and planned military space programs and weapons developments—notwithstanding Beijing’s long-held position on banning weapons in outer space—and the need to better understand the nature of civil-military relations in China, especially as they relate to effective channels of communication during times of crises, to the problems of the significant amounts of debris left behind by the test, and the overall implications for space security [11].

The larger question is what drives China’s military space program, and how it is related to Beijing’s threat perceptions and defense modernization in terms of doctrine, weapons procurement and priorities [12]. Three sets of factors are critical considerations. These are the role of space in future warfare, the threat posed by U.S. dominance of space, and how America’s vulnerabilities could be exploited by the PLA in any potential future Sino-U.S. military conflicts, most likely over the fate of Taiwan.

As widely acknowledged, space is increasingly being militarized as more and more states place military satellites into orbit and use space as a force multiplier for military operations. Space control provides the key to military victories in modern warfare, as amply demonstrated by the Gulf War of 1990-91, where the U.S. military first demonstrated how it relied on and made full advantage of its space assets in support of its military operations’ precision strikes. Since then, China’s military leadership has increasingly focused on the importance of high-tech warfare and the ability of sophisticated command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) systems to link land, sea, air, and space forces [13]. Military use of space has become a key component of information warfare and is focused on two key considerations: How to use space to enhance one’s own offensive capabilities, and how to use space to deny one’s potential adversaries those similar capabilities.

Chinese views of space in future warfare are informed by a number of considerations. First is the role of information utility in future warfare [14]. This includes intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, positioning, and navigation, all of which relate to and depend on the use of space. For instance, the United States reportedly is constantly tracking the over 800 satellites currently in orbit. Military satellites—of which the United States has over 100—are essential in gathering intelligence for the United States. This monitoring capability will further enhance U.S. dominance in space control. Chinese media reports suggest that the ability to monitor and track other satellites also provide targeting data for U.S. ASAT weapons (Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times], January 16, 2007).

The second is space warfare, which is critical in terms of force enhancement, force application, air and space integration, space control, and space support. In military operational terms, these capabilities can be summarized as falling under two types: enhancement of joint military operations, and space dominance by damaging enemy space systems and protecting one’s own to ensure maximum freedom of action [15].

The recognition of the growing importance of space in China’s defense modernization is implicitly reflected in its recent defense white papers in which the strategic goal of building a modern force that uses new information capabilities is emphasized. Indeed, since 2002, Beijing has shifted its position from opposing the militarization of space to opposing the weaponization of space, thus removing the political hurdle to its own space use in such applications as reconnaissance, navigation, and positioning for military purposes. Interestingly and perhaps by no means an unintended negligence, the 2006 Defense White Paper for the first time even omitted the reference to banning space weaponization [16].

Space security has been a major consideration behind Beijing’s development of its military space programs, including ASAT capabilities. U.S. preparations for possible future space warfare against China have been closely watched by PLA analysts. The series of space war games held by U.S. Space Command since 2001 pit U.S. forces against an opponent threatening a small neighbor (e.g., China threatening Taiwan) and focused on the use of space assets by the two major powers [17]. It is not surprising to hear suggestions that as defensive and counter measures, China may be forced to deploy space weapons in the future, especially if some countries push for an arms race in space [18].

Chinese observations reflect a deeper concern over the implications of U.S. preeminence in outer space and advanced capabilities in weaponizing space to guard against its stated security threats. Space weaponization and the deployment of missile defense systems threaten to neutralize China’s limited nuclear deterrence—currently with 20 or so ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States. This could force China to devote greater resources to speed up its nuclear force modernization efforts and develop counter measures. The recent U.S. shoot-down of one of its defunct spy satellites using an SM-3 interceptor missile only reinforces that perception (Xinjing Bao, February 22). These developments, while largely defensive from China’s perspectives, could be seen by the Pentagon as evidence of Chinese intention to challenge U.S. dominance both in space and in East Asia [19].

PLA writings suggest that given heavy U.S. reliance on satellites and other space assets for military operations, jamming and destroying these space assets will become increasingly important in a future conflict. ASAT systems focus on disrupting enemy communications and intelligence systems, and are potentially powerful weapons against a technologically dominant adversary. This is the so-called “assassin’s mace” (Shashoujian) [20]. China’s inability—and reluctance—to compete directly with advanced U.S. technologies may lead the Chinese military to focus on asymmetrical methods such as ASAT weapons in an effort to counter U.S. military dominance [21]. The desire to have some chance of success against a technologically superior opponent may well be the rationale behind China’s search for asymmetrical means of warfare [22].


China has made major achievements in space exploration and continues to charge ahead with ambitious plans and objectives. The drive for space power status is informed by the potential scientific, industrial, commercial, and military benefits that are critical components in building up the country’s comprehensive national strength. China’s ascendancy to a space power also raises questions and concerns, some of which may be legitimate while others are unfounded. Beijing continues to call for negotiation leading to an international treaty banning the weaponization of outer space. Clearly, engagement and dialogue on the implications of China’s civilian and military space programs for its future endeavors and international cooperation go a long way toward securing the space sanctuary and peaceful use of space.


1. China National Space Administration, “‘Eleventh-Five-Year-plan of the Science Space Program’ issued by COSTIND,” March 19, 2007,

2. Xinhua News Agency, “Text of Hu Jintao’s Speech at Celebrations of China’s First Lunar Probe,” December 12, 2007, accessed through the Open Source Center, April 1, 2008.

3. Bright B. Simons, Evans Lartey and Franklin Cudjoe, “China Draws Africa into Its Orbit,” Asia Times Online, March 31, 2007,

4. Sam Silverstein, “Joint Mission with China May Expand Brazil’s Capabilities,” Space News, October 16, 2000, pp. 3, 28; Frank Braun, “Cooperation Key for INPE,” Space News, June 5, 2000, p. 14.

5. José Carlos Matias, “E.I.-China Partnership on the Galileo Satellite System,” Power and Interest News Report (PINR), July 17, 2007, at, accessed on August 13, 2007; European Space Policy Institute, China’s Posture in Space: Implications for Europe, June 2007, pp. 69-71, at:

6. Marsha Freeman, “China in Space: A Look at China’s Ambitious Space Program,” 21st Century Science & Technology 19:3-4 (Fall-Winter 2006), pp. 48-51, at:’s_Space_Program.pdf.

7. Jeff Kueter, “China’s Space Ambitions—And Ours,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2007, pp. 7-22; James E. Oberg, “The U.S. and China: What ‘Common Ground’ in Outer Space?” George C. Marshall Policy Outlook (Washington, D.C.: George C. Marshall Institute, August 2006).

8. Kevin Pollpeter, Building for the Future: China’s Progress in Space Technology during the Tenth 5-Year Plan and U.S. Response (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, March 2008),

9. Zhang Qingwei, “China’s Aerospace in Development,” China Aerospace Magazine, August 2007, Open Source Center, September 20, 2007, CPP20070920478003; Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Space Activities in 2006, October 17, 2006,

10. “Special Report: Chinese Anti-Satellite Weapon Test – The Shot Heard ‘Round’ the World,” WMD Insights, Issue 13 (March 2007), pp. 2-17; Bates Gill and Martin Kleiber, “China’s Space Odyssey,” Foreign Affairs 86:3 (May/June 2007), pp. 2-6; James Mulvenon, “Rogue Warriors?—A Puzzled Look at the Chinese ASAT,” Chinese Leadership Monitor 20 (Winter 2007), at:; Theresa Hitchens, “U.S.-Sino Relations in Space: From ‘War of Words’ to Cold War in Space?” China Security 3:1 (Winter 2007), pp. 12-30.

11. Ashley J. Tellis, “China’s Military Space Strategy,” Survival 49:3 (Autumn 2007), pp. 41-72; Michael Krepon et al., “China’s Military Space Strategy: An Exchange,” Survival 50:1 (February-March 2008), pp. 157-198.

12. For an excellent summary of the Chinese views on space and future warfare, see Kevin Pollpeter, “The Chinese Vision of Space Military Operations,” in James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein, eds., China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 2005), pp. 329-369. See also, James D. Perry, “Operation Allied Force: The View from Beijing,” Aerospace Power Journal XIV:2 (Summer 2000), pp. 79-91.

13. Dean Cheng, PLA Views on Space: The Prerequisite for Information Dominance (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analysis, October 2007), accessed through the Open Source Center.

14. See Pollpeter, “The Chinese Vision of Space Military Operations.”

15. China’s defense white papers can be accessed at; for the 2006 edition, see The Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2006,” December 29, 2006.

16. “U.S. War Game Signals New Arms Race in Space Weaponry in 21st Century,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], February 21, 2001, in FBIS-CPP20010221000091; Teng Jianqun, “Thoughts Arising from the U.S. Military’s Space War Exercise,” Jiefangjun Bao, February 7, 2001, p. 9, in FBIS-CPP20010207000050; Jason Sherman, “China Looks Askance At Space War Game,” Defense News, February 28, 2001, pp. 3, 19.

17. “Junfang zhuanjia: zhongguo bupaichu rihou bushu taikong wuqi [Military Expert: China Not to Rule Out Weapons Deployment in Outer Space in Future],”, January 29, 2007.

18. “PRC Scholar Discusses U.S. ‘Ulterior Motives’ in Destroying Satellite With Missile,” Beijing Xinjing Bao in Chinese, February 22, 2008, in Open Source Cener, CPP20080222050001; Jeffrey Lewis, The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006).

19. “Pentagon Says China’s Boost to Space Plan Poses a Threat,” New York Times, March 4, 2008; Hui Zhang, “Action/Reaction: U.S. Space Weaponization and China,” Arms Control Today 35:10 (December 2005), pp. 6-11.

20. For a good summary of these views, see Eric Hagt, “China’s ASAT Test: Strategic Response,” China Security 3:1 (Winter 2007), pp. 31-51.

21. Bao Shixin, “Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space,” China Security 3:1 (Winter 2007), pp. 2-11.

22. James C. Mulvenon et al., Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Transformation and Implications for the Department of Defense (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006.