Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 8

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

China’s recent successful third uninhabited test of its Shenzhou manned space capsule serves to highlight the political, military and diplomatic agendas of its manned space program. But before the United States and Europe can craft a proper response to either the test or the agendas, they need to understand China’s goals.


China’s third Project 921-1 man-rated space capsule was launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center on March 25. The 7.8 ton craft is a larger and extensively modified version of the Russian Soyuz, consisting of three modules for propulsion, descent and orbital activities. Nicknamed the Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) by President Jiang Zemin on the eve of its first launch in October 1999, the third ship circled the Earth 108 times before the descent module landed in Inner Mongolia on April 1. By most Chinese reports, the mission was a success compared to the second one (January 2001), which reportedly suffered a hard landing. Such a failure would in part account for reports that this latest launch was delayed on a number of occasions.

The third Shenzhou effort was the most ambitious to date, marking three firsts. The vessel was fully outfitted for manned use, but carried only two dummy yuhangyuans (astronauts) that simulated breathing, heartbeat and other bodily functions. The launch included testing of a rocket-powered crew escape system, and the capsule relayed back real-time video imagery of Earth. It also carried material and life-science experiments on board. As with the first two missions, the orbital module has remained aloft to continue experiments, but this time is also conducting “earth observation” activities.

China’s manned space program, which got underway in 1992, is ambitious. Project 921 could see its first manned mission in Shenzhou 4 or 5, either this year or next. The first twelve yuhangyuan–all of whom are fighter pilots–were on hand to observe the latest launch. Shenzhou manned missions are expected to practice maneuvering, docking and extended flights as a prelude to launching larger space stations, perhaps by the end of the decade. A new series of “Long March” launchers capable of lifting 25 tons will propell the space station components aloft. This is comparable to the most capable Ariane-5 launcher of the European Space Agency. China also plans a small reusable space plane for early in the next decade.


While China’s space program, especially its manned component, serves as an engine for technological and economic modernization, it is also a political tool of increasing importance to the Chinese Communist leadership. Though still a test mission, Jiang Zemin himself went to Jiuquan to supervise and observe the launch. He clearly hopes to identify the Party and himself with China’s “best and brightest” and their stellar accomplishments. For Jiang, marshaling spacecraft is also politically preferable to confronting striking rust-belt workers or endemic corruption. Provided he manages to remain partially in power following the next Party Congress, Jiang will likely be on hand to greet the first yuhangyuan when they step out of their descent module onto the Mongolian desert.

But in seeking a close personal association with the manned space program Jiang is taking a risk: He could also be personally identified with any potential tragic failure. While the Russian and U.S. space programs have survived their tragedies, China is contemplating an enormous increase in space-related spending in a period of rising economic volatility that could be compounded by WTO-related pressures. It is not farfetched to consider that such pressures, or that a new leadership group that these issues create, might curtail the space program. It certainly did in post-communist Russia.

However, space spending now is a certainty, as is a growing PLA budget, inasmuch as the Party and the PLA remain politically codependent. And the PLA wants its share of the credit for the space program. After the Shenzhou 3 mission, Jiang congratulated General Cao Gangchuan, and possibly for the first time identified him as “chief director of the national manned space program.” General Cao is a member of the Central Military Commission and heads the PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD), which is responsible for leading much of China’s high technology sector and its military-industrial complex.


During his visit to Jiuquan, Jiang eschewed Kennedy-esque rhetoric, instead sounding more Klingon warlord-like in his linking the manned space program to military goals. According to Xinhua, on March 26, Jiang praised assembled engineers for having “made strenuous efforts and important contributions to China’s space industry and military modernization.” And he urged them “to secure new victories in the manned spaceflight project as well as in the whole space industry and in defense technology.” While the United States strives to maintain a “firewall” between civil and military space activities, China apparently makes no such pretense.

It would seem unlikely that China would use its manned space program, or even the Shenzhou for military missions, even though a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper has hinted at the latter possibility. However it was reported that Shenzhou 3 may launch its own very small satellite. According to some reports it will be a radio relay satellite. But China has an ambitious small satellite program and this type of satellite is envisioned for a range of military missions including antisatellite (ASAT) interception. In the mid-to-late 1960s the Soviets made plans for numerous military versions of the Soyuz spacecraft. While it is possible that China has had access to much of this work, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese will opt against using manned space combat platforms as did the Soviets and the Americans.

But, at the same time, China is pressing ahead with a large military satellite program and is expected to launch, in the very near future, a new series of high resolution electro-optical satellites and radar satellites that can penetrate cloud cover. China has its own limited-use navigation satellite system but plans a more capable navigation satellite constellation similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). And while the PLA makes extensive use of Chinese commercial-owned communication satellites, it is also building dedicated military communication satellites. In addition, China is developing ASAT weapons that could include ground-based lasers or micro-satellites launched from new mobile space-launch vehicles.

This aggressive military satellite program is intended to provide support for potential PLA operations against Taiwan. New PLA short range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles require constant target updates and precise navigation inputs that can be supplied by a GPS-like constellation. The PLA also needs to defeat U.S. space assets that would be vital to the success of any U.S. attempt to rescue Taiwan.


Given the intense military focus of China’s space program, it should not come as a surprise that many would welcome the emergence of China’s manned space program as an opportunity for nonmilitary engagement. The U.S. publication Aviation Week and Space Technology has reported that the Bush State Department and NASA are considering allowing China to join the International Space Station (ISS), an option that the Clinton administration also once consider but then dropped. NASA officials however, denied this report and emphasized that existing policy required that China adhere to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) before considering such cooperation.

However, Chinese space officials have made statements in favor of joining the ISS, a gesture that is viewed as an opportunity among the engagement-inclined. Also, the Europeans have mounted a quite campaign to get China in the ISS. They want to curry favor for their space industry which seeks to sell China advanced space technology, especially for their future space station.

For certain, it would be exciting to join China in future space exploration, especially when considering the potential scale of China’s contribution. But as long as China’s space program has a largely military character, it can be expected that the extensive knowledge it would gain from ISS participation would be invested in PLA military space programs. General Cao’s position would suggest nothing less. Thus, it is better to seek a greater foundation for peace on Earth with China–such as on the Taiwan Strait–before engaging a Chinese space program so closely bound to China’s military goals.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is the managing editor of China Brief.