China’s Space White Paper: Increasing Transparency…to a Degree

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 3

Yet Another Long March Rocket Blasting Off...

The publication of China’s Space Activities in 2011 on December 29, 2011 represents a continuing effort by Beijing to make its space program more transparent and to tout its progress. The publication of this third white paper on the space program demonstrates China’s continued commitment to its space industry and its intention to exploit the political benefits of a successful space program. The white paper documents China’s progress in developing space technologies and the increasing number of its international cooperative activities. The white paper does make it clear that China intends to build an ever more capable space program as it moves from the testing of platforms to the building of systems. The white paper, unfortunately, devotes much less time to Chinese policies governing its activities in space and, as a result, will do little to alleviate concerns over the country’s increasing national power.

Looking Back at the 11th Five-Year Plan and Forward to the 12th Five-Year Plan

If the period of the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) laid a foundation for China’s space program, China clearly built upon this foundation during the period of the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) (“Competing Perceptions of the U.S. and Chinese Space Programs,” China Brief, January 10, 2007). Moreover, the white paper describes the period of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) as a “crucial period for China” and one that will bring new opportunities to China’s space industry. Indeed, China plans a full slate of technology development during the period of the 12th Five-Year Plan by relying primarily on its own capabilities through indigenous innovation.

China nearly tripled the number of successful launches during the 2006-2010 time period from 24 to 67 with two failures. The success rate for the Long March series of launchers is now over 94 percent—well within international standards for space launch vehicles. The year 2010 was a milestone year in which China for the first time tied the United States in the number of launches with 15 and, in 2011, China surpassed the United States with 18 launches. During the 12th Five-Year Plan, China plans to maintain this pace with the launch of 100 satellites on 100 rockets (Global Times, January 20).

China also plans to develop three new types of Long March rockets—the Long March-5, -6 and -7—which eventually will replace the current series of Long March launchers. As a group, these launch vehicles will be able to launch heavier payloads into orbit to support China’s space station and lunar exploration programs and provide a more responsive launch capacity.

China made several notable achievements with these launches. The most visible were in support of China’s human spaceflight program. In 2007, China launched the Shenzhou-7, which involved China’s first space walk. In 2011, China launched the Tiangong-1 space station, China’s first space station, and docked it with the unmanned Shenzhou-8 space capsule. China will continue its human spaceflight operations in 2012 with the launch of the Shenzhou-9 and -10 missions to dock with the Tiangong-1 space station. China also will launch other space stations during the next four years to master the technologies and operation of space stations.

Less prominent, but more important were China’s launches of remote sensing satellites. From 2006-2010, China launched a total of 19 remote sensing satellites, including optical imaging, synthetic aperture radar, electronic intelligence satellites, stereoscopic mapping, meteorological and ocean monitoring satellites. China’s efforts at space-based remote sensing point to the national security aspects of China’s space program and its desire to form a C4ISR system to support anti-access and area denial missions against potential adversaries. Indeed, the white paper states, during the next four years, China will establish a “stable all-weather, 24-hour, multi-spectral, various-resolution Earth observation system” (“Satellites Support Growing PLA Maritime Monitoring and Targeting Capabilities,” China Brief, February 10, 2011).

A third notable achievement was the establishment of a regional satellite navigation and positioning system. In December 2011, the ten satellites of the Beidou navigation system began initial operational service in and around China. This service will be expanded in 2012 with the launch of six more satellites (Global Times, December 28, 2011). Beidou provides positioning signals with an accuracy of 10 meters, much less than the several meter accuracy of the U.S. Global Positioning System.

China also conducted two lunar exploration missions during the 11th Five-Year Plan. Both the 2007 Chang’e-1 and the 2010 Chang’e-2 missions mapped the lunar service. In the coming years, China will conduct a soft landing on the moon in order to deploy a robotic lunar rover (China Broadcasting Net, January 27). One of the most intriguing statements in the white paper is the announcement that China “will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.” The Chinese version of the white paper translates “preliminary plan” (qianqi fang’an lunzheng). According to sources on China’s space technology research and development process, the “fang’an lunzheng” stage is the period of time devoted to determining the exact technologies for use in a project and is conducted after the state or appropriate ministry has approved the project formally. This suggests China has completed its feasibility studies and that the top leadership of the country has given final approval for sending humans to the moon [1].

If this is the case, it is odd that China would not have chosen to announce the mission in another venue specifically devoted to the project. Indeed, in February 2004 after the top leadership had approved unmanned lunar missions the month before, the People’s Daily ran an article announcing the beginning of the project and this was followed by more extensive coverage during the National People’s Congress in March 2004 (People’s Daily, March 23, 2004; February 15, 2004). In addition, Zhang Wei, spokesman for the China National Space Administration, during the press conference for the white paper did not explicitly state the lunar exploration program had been approved by the top leadership. Zhang instead stated there is no timetable for a manned moon landing as it depended on the development of other technologies, including the development of a launch vehicle large enough to carry a lunar lander (Xinhua, December 30, 2011).

International Cooperation

China’s increase in technological development has been matched by an increase in its cooperative activities. China’s cooperative activities in space increased significantly over the past 11 years. During the 2001-2005 time period, China listed five cooperative activities involving technology development or cooperating on space missions. During the 2006-2010 time period this number increased to nine.  The majority of these cooperative activities have been with the developed world and countries in transition, such as Russia and Ukraine, rather than the developing world. The white paper states China has signed a number of cooperative agreements on space science, and deep-space exploration with Russia and that their national space administrations have opened representative offices in each other’s countries. The white paper also states China has “extensive” but unspecified cooperation with Ukraine.

In addition, China and the European Space Agency have cooperated on the Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 lunar exploration missions while China has cooperated with Great Britain and France on space science and technology.

In the next four years, China will conduct cooperative activities on astronomy, physics, micro-gravity, space-life science, deep-space exploration and space debris; cooperative activities in regards to Earth observation satellites, communication satellite broadcasting, satellite navigation systems, technical cooperation in regards to space stations and space science research; and space telemetry, tracking and command cooperation.

Commercial Activities

China also has been keen to promote commercial space activities. China has reinvigorated itself as a commercial launch service provider and has exported satellites for the first time. China exported and made in-orbit deliveries of communication satellites to Nigeria, Venezuela and Pakistan and provided commercial launch services to Indonesia for the Palapa-D satellite and the to Eutelsat for the W3C satellite. China also has signed commercial agreements with Bolivia, Laos, Belarus and Turkmenistan for communication satellites and ground system support services.

China’s increasing commercial space activities come at a time of heightened competition in the launch service and satellite manufacturing markets due to a slowdown in satellite purchases and an increase in the number of launch providers (Aviation Week and Space Technologies, January 30). China’s intention to capture 15 percent of international commercial launches and 10 percent of satellite exports in the next four years will only exacerbate this trend. In 2012, for example, China will conduct five commercial launches and will export its first remote sensing satellite to Indonesia in 2012 (Xinhua, December 21, 2011). The white paper also states China will export satellite parts and components, ground test equipment and the building and service of satellite ground as well as satellite application facilities.

Space Policy

According to the white paper, “the purposes of China’s space industry are: to explore outer space and to enhance understanding of the Earth and the cosmos; to utilize outer space for peaceful purposes, promote human civilization and social progress, and to benefit the whole of mankind; to meet the demands of economic development, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to improve the scientific and cultural knowledge of the Chinese people, protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its national comprehensive strength.”

One striking feature of the white paper is its downplaying of the national security applications of its space industry. While the white paper states China’s space industry is intended to “promote…national security…to protect China’s national rights and interests,” there is an overall effort in the white paper to minimize the role satellites play in China’s military. The white paper’s discussion of the Beidou satellite navigation system, for example, states Beidou “has been used in transportation, sea fishing, hydrological monitoring, communications and timing service, power dispatching and disaster reduction and relief,” but neglects any mention of military use. Military press, however, states Beidou will increase the PLA’s operational capabilities by 100-1000 times and improve its cost effectiveness by 10-50 times (PLA Daily, December 27, 2011).

China’s white paper also neglects to mention its two anti-satellite (ASAT) tests conducted in 2007 and 2010, nor does it offer any clues as to China’s policy on offensive counter-space activities. The white paper does state “China always adheres to the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space.” This however was China’s policy before its ASAT tests. While it is not surprising that China does not mention its debris-producing 2007 ASAT test, the white paper does state China “takes effective measures to protect the space environment” and “will work together with the international community to maintain a peaceful and clean outer space.” This could indicate China will not conduct additional debris-producing ASAT tests. On the other hand, it also could simply mean that China will seek to reduce debris in other ways. For example, the white paper states China will begin monitoring space debris, establish an assessment system to mitigate space debris, and make efforts to reduce space debris left by retired spacecraft and launch vehicles.


China’s Space Activities in 2011 is an important effort by the Chinese government to make its space program more transparent and to present its space program in a positive light. In this it is largely successful. The white paper is a good account of China’s space activities in the past five years and provides a good summary of its intended space activities in the next four years. In this respect, the white paper provides much more information than similar U.S. documents on its space program.

Unfortunately, while the document goes to great lengths to describe what China is doing in space, it only minimally addresses its intentions in space. It is in this aspect in which the white paper falls well short of U.S. documents such as the National Space Strategy and the National Security Space Strategy, which go to much greater lengths to explain U.S. policy and the mechanisms through which the United States will implement its policies. As a result, the white paper will not alleviate international concerns over China’s increasing military strength.

What is clear from the white paper is that China will build upon the foundation laid during the previous two five-year plans. China has gone from testing individual platforms to building satellite systems. It is during this stage in which China will be able to begin to fully leverage the benefits of its space program and the stage in which the political, military, economic, and commercial aspects of its space program may become more readily apparent.


  1. Hua Lusen, Xitong gongcheng yu hangtian xitong gongcheng guanli [Systems Engineering and Space Systems Engineering Management], Beijing: China Astronautics Press, 2007, p. 73.