Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 6

While China’s space activities are largely supervised by its military, the civilian aspects are administered by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). Charles Vick, chief of the space policy division at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said that “In general, we should not underestimate the Chinese and their capabilities, especially since they are building a second launch site [for the Long March/Shenzou combination] that is almost complete. They are picking up the pace and the funding appears to be there.” Vick’s statements are a clear indication of how far China has come since the end of the Cultural Revolution – Beijing’s accelerated progress in space exploration and its military applications has occurred in the last twenty-five years.

The International Herald Tribune noted in October 2003 that although the Chinese do not release budgetary figures, U.S. analysts estimate that about $2.2 billion goes into the space program annually. However, the best that can be said about Chinese investments in its space program is that Beijing is spending relatively significant government resources; whether Western assertions that China spends about $2 billion per annum on space activities (civilian and/or military) are accurate, remains unclear.

In the words of Liu Jibin, Chinese minister for the Commission of Technology and Industry for National Defence “Space development is a reflection of comprehensive national strength.” Thus, there is no doubt that if economic conditions are robust, space expenditure, whether for military or civil purposes, will remain a dominant factor in Beijing’s agenda for years to come. Under a less than robust economy, or under fiscal constraints, space expenditure allocations might suffer and China might follow the example of Russia, which barely keep its space activities afloat.

Space Programs

Nezavisimioye Voennoye Obozreniye reported in August 2003 that China’s space program was gradually but consistently formed and autonomously pursued in the last quarter of the 20th century. The manned space program in particular has been accelerated in the last ten years. This followed a careful evaluation of the Soviet/Russian and American experiences. Since November 1999, the Chinese have successfully launched four test flights of unmanned Shenzou spacecraft. James Olberg, who spent twenty-two years at NASA Mission Control in Houston noted that what “we have learned of China’s space strategy in recent years is that it is innovative, competitive and deliberately inspirational.”

It is important to note that the space program has a high degree of self-reliance. However, in the early stages China borrowed heavily from Russian technology. Today, it relies mainly on equipment that it has developed itself or it has adapted significantly. It is possible to envisage that China will continue to develop its dynamic space program independently. It has all the skills, the funding, and the will to succeed coupled with government support to keep space at the top of the agenda. As for training, the first two of the fourteen taikonauts (an English nickname for Chinese astronauts based on the Chinese word for space taikong) were trained at the Moscow-based Gagarin Space Centre. In the October 2003 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology it was noted that over the last decade China spent about $1.6 billion on new space facilities. These new facilities include the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre and a separate simulator-equipped “Space City” astronaut training center. These are modern facilities comparable in some respects to the Johnston Space Centre in Houston. In addition to modern facilities, China has built three launch sites. In November 2003, Aviation Week and Space Technology noted China had launched their fourth major space flight, a ChinaSat communications satellite. The ChinaSat launch from the Xichang site in Sichuan means that in addition to launching four complex missions within a month of each other, the Chinese used three widely separated sites to do it – an impressive show of space resources.

Undoubtedly China’s manned space activity provides legitimacy for the government and brings China into an exclusive club along with Russia and the United States. It also employs a large number of Chinese workers and, in the process, substantially improves their technological skills and education.

According to the Far Eastern Economic Review (October 2003), the manned space flight crowned a decade of progress in civilian applications of space technology and China’s ability to launch satellites – both for itself and for other countries. Dean Cheng, an Asian analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, noted that “Clearly there is a huge economic component to manned space flight in terms of the ability to provide communications to remote parts of China and other areas.” Although China’s leap into space has been dominated by the military, the martial implications of the program are hard to quantify and will probably produce much dual-use technology.

China is developing its own satellite manufacturing capabilities and can build a satellite completely independently of other countries, according to a Chinese official. In addition, the official said that the Beijing-based Great Wall Industry Corporation is in a position to help foreign satellite operators establish themselves in China’s large telecommunications market. He said that China does not intend to link such assistance to the lifting of the de facto U.S. ban on the use of Long March rockets, but he suggested such a move by the United States would do no harm. He also said that “The U.S. government was forcing Chinese industry to co-operate with European industry. We would like to co-operate with the United States” but cannot do that now.

The same official continued that, while looking to return to the international launch scene, Great Wall has launched a series of Chinese spacecraft and has been working on upgrading its launch capabilities. The firm is developing more powerful rockets that can handle larger satellites and has modernized its launch facilities with improved equipment, new roads and more comfortable customer accommodation.

In November 2002, Shao Lin, director of the Chinese Ministry of Science Technology’s department of high technology and new technology, said that the Chinese government proposed that it becomes a full participant in the Galileo satellite-navigation project with the same rights as the other participants. According to European government officials, China’s role in financing the Galileo project has decreased during the last two years. Gone is the idea that China would invest €200 million in cash. China is now expected to make a cash payment of €5 million in the Galileo Joint Undertaking in return for an equity stake of well under 1 percent.

Future Space Programs

While Chinese long-term ambitions in space are often unclear, a White Paper published in 2000 by the State Council includes plans for independent Chinese satellite broadcasting and navigation systems, space exploration and the marketing of new applications discovered through the space program. As for a launch service, a White Paper set a target for tapping the overseas launch market by “developing the next generation of launch vehicles with non-toxic, non-polluting, high-performance and low-cost qualities and strengthening the capability of providing international commercial launch services.”

According to Hu Shixiang, deputy commander-in-chief of the China Manned Space Engineering Program, although the next Shenzou flight will involve crew use of the orbital module, there are no plans for Shenzou to separate from the orbital module and conduct docking tests with it. Wang Yongzhi, chief designer of the overall manned program for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reaffirmed China’s plans to use Shenzou manned flight hardware to create a temporary orbiting outpost before developing a larger space station. Yongzhi said that the station development program would take about fifteen years to complete; China has been focusing on station development since 2002. China plans to send two taikonauts in September 2005.

A report in Space News in August 2003 noted that the initial Chinese lunar orbit mission, which could be launched by the end of 2007 (not in 2006, as earlier envisaged), will carry imaging and geochemical mapping instrumentation, a payload that would draw strong interest from the international planetary science community. In addition, according to Luan Enjie, the Chinese National Space Administration director, China has begun a formal unmanned lunar program that plans to involve one or more lunar orbit missions, followed by lunar surface rovers and eventually an unmanned lunar sample return mission to be implemented as early as 2012. All three of the program’s elements would help build China’s aerospace technological capability, especially in advanced lightweight materials, electrical systems and overall robotic systems.

Meanwhile, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported in October 2003 that the Chinese are engaged in a wide-ranging space development initiative across multiple civil and military unmanned space programs in addition to their Shenzou manned project. The programs include:

§ A new range of military imaging reconnaissance, navigation and communications spacecraft;

§ The KT oxygen/hydrogen booster program to develop new heavy launch vehicles similar to the U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programs;

§ The KT-1 solid propellant launch vehicle: this new four-stage solid propellant space launcher aims to compete with the U.S. and Europe market for the small-satellite launches;

§ Smallsat technology spacecraft in connection with Asian and other partners: Iran has been involved in one of the programs;

§ Smallsat optical and radar spacecraft for Earth remote sensing;

§ New F-1 and FY-2 ocean and weather monitoring spacecraft;

And a 4,500-pound, 1-metre aperture solar telescope planned for launch later in the decade for extremely detailed observation of the sun.

China’s space programs are certainly very ambitious and envisage long-term development. While compared with Russia and the United States, China has a long road ahead on its journey into space. It appears to have all the prerequisites to accomplish its goals.

Civilian space applications for military use

In 2001 China launched two satellites carrying experimental navigation payloads. Both operate from geostationary orbit covering Chinese and surrounding territory. The Chinese government launched its third Beidou navigation satellite on 25 May 2003 aboard a Long March 3A rocket. According to Geoffrey Forden’s article published in the October 2003 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review, China’s navigation satellite system, as it now stands, could not be used for aerial bombs. It is conceivable, however, that China could use the existing constellation of three satellites to assist a cruise missile strike against Taiwan. Forden continued that the most unambiguous application of this system is likely to be in improving the accuracy of China’s Missile Forces and its arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to Sibing He’s article published in the August 2003 issue of Space Policy, in response to Washington’s efforts to increase its civilian space agency’s role in defense and to develop a missile defense system, Beijing is likely to accelerate its efforts to expand dual-use space technology in order to strengthen its military position.

In the words of Dean Cheng, “the military implications of the manned space programs are hard to quantify.” Nevertheless, it is evident that the program is going to produce them sooner rather than later. It remains for us to observe and carefully analyze these hard-to-quantify military implications.

To conclude, space policy, whether it is civil, commercial or military, is directly associated with China’s national prestige and, as a result, can override the government agenda. It is also evident that the importance of space, and particularly of military space, as underlined above, is increasing. In the words of Fang Xianming, Vice President of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), “a ‘battle’ for control of space is already under way.”

Dr. Eugene Kogan is currently a guest researcher at the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. He is a defense industry analyst with expertise on Russia, Eastern Europe, Israel and China.