Competing Perceptions of the U.S. and Chinese Space Programs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 1

In October 2006, both the United States and the People’s Republic of China released documents that dictated their policies toward the international use of space. Issued just a week apart, the “U.S. National Space Policy” (NSP) and the “China’s Space Activities in 2006” dealt with the respective countries’ space programs, though they generated vastly different international reactions. The U.S. government was widely criticized for advocating a policy perceived as intending to develop space weapons and for language eschewing arms control in space. Beijing’s document, on the other hand, received little media attention outside of China, as it limited its discussion to solely civil space programs, gingerly avoiding any mention of its dual-use military applications. The tones of the two documents provide an interesting glimpse at the different approaches to space diplomacy, with the United States emphasizing national security and asserting U.S. rights in space and China stressing the benevolence of its space program and its openness to international cooperation.

The differences in the documents are accounted for by their divergent purposes and authorships. The NSP was issued by the White House and consists of 13 sections dealing with national security and commercial, civil and international cooperation as well as U.S. policy goals and principles. It is a working document intended to govern the conduct of U.S. space activities by explaining in detail the roles of various agencies in promoting U.S. space efforts, most important of these being the Department of Defense. “China’s Space Activities in 2006” was issued by the Information Office of the State Council, and unlike its U.S. counterpart, the white paper is a much more retrospective document, concerned with China’s space activities during the period of the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005). It consists of five sections dealing with aims and principles, progress made in the past five years, goals for the next five years, policies and international exchanges and cooperation.

Given that the document was drafted under the guidance of the China National Space Administration (CNSA)—a civilian agency primarily responsible for signing international agreements and exchanges and for managing national space technology and industry—it is unsurprising that the white paper has a civil space emphasis with a significant section on international cooperation, one of its main responsibilities. “Defense” and “security” are mentioned only three times throughout the entire paper, and there is no mention of its partnership with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is responsible for the operation of China’s launch sites and its spacecraft. The development and operation of China’s human spaceflight program, for instance, is run by the PLA. Consequently, the document serves as a venue to tout China’s accomplishments in space not only for domestic political and bureaucratic reasons, but also to advertise China’s viability as an international partner in space.

China’s Space Activities during the 10th Five-Year Plan

It is apparent that the period of the 10th Five-Year Plan was a watershed for China’s endeavors in space, and that China has laid a foundation to become a major space power. During this time, China conducted more launches than at any other time in its history. In 2002, China had nine satellites in orbit [1]. By 2005, this number had increased to 19 [2]. Additionally, China made steady progress in nearly all aspects of space technology. From 2001-2005, China launched 22 satellites and five spacecraft, involving 29 launches, all of them successful. From October 1996 to December 2005, the Long March series of rockets made 46 consecutive successful flights and achieved a 92% lifetime success rate, a reliability record approaching international standards [3]. According to the white paper, China now has six types of satellites: recoverable remote sensing satellites, Dongfanghong (DFH) communication satellites, Fengyun (FY) meteorological satellites, Shijian (SJ) scientific research and technological experiment satellites, Ziyuan (ZY) Earth resources satellites and Beidou navigation and positioning satellites. The most public achievements since 2001 were the launches of two human spaceflight missions: Shenzhou V and Shenzhou VI. The Shenzhou V was launched on October 15, 2003 and conducted a 21-hour mission with one astronaut. The Shenzhou VI flight involved a five-day, two-man mission. Subsequent flights will involve space walks and rendezvous and docking exercises to prepare for an eventual space station.

The Chinese space program has also initiated two development projects. The first is a next generation launch vehicle that will replace the current Long March series of rockets. This rocket, scheduled for launch in 2012, will use 120-ton and 50-ton engines fueled by non-polluting and non-toxic propellants. In addition, the rocket will use strap-on modules to suit a variety of orbits and payloads. The second development project is a lunar exploration program formerly approved in January 2003. The first of three missions will be launched in early 2007 and involve a lunar orbiter that will take 3-D images of the moon. Subsequent missions will involve sending a robotic vehicle to explore the lunar surface and return with lunar soil samples (Xinhua, May 17, 2006). While individual members of the Chinese space industry remain hopeful for human spaceflight to the moon, CNSA officials have ruled out such a possibility until the government can evaluate the success of the robotic missions after their conclusion in 2020 (People’s Daily, March 14, 2004).

China is set to build upon this significant foundation during the 11th Five-year Plan. On top of developing a new launch vehicle and conducting a lunar program, China will expand the number and sophistication of all of its Earth observation satellites, including meteorological, oceanic and Earth resources satellites. To bolster its observation and reconnaissance capabilities, it will deploy an eight-satellite remote sensing constellation consisting of four optical sensor satellites and four synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites (People’s Daily, August 22, 2006). China also plans to develop multiple communication satellites that will have increased service life and reliability. China will also seek to improve its Beidou navigation system by launching additional advanced satellites and developing application technologies, such as those for the rail and ocean shipping industries. The present system is able to achieve only 20-meter accuracies, but China plans to eventually deploy a system with GPS-like accuracies.

At the forefront of China’s efforts to portray itself as a responsible stakeholder in space is its section on space cooperation entitled, “International Exchanges and Cooperation.” Whereas the United States devotes just 140 words to the topic in its NSP, China devotes 1,606. The section gives multiple examples of international cooperation in the past five years and states that China has signed agreements “on the peaceful uses of outer space” with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine and Europe. Additionally, the section notes that China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey have signed a convention to establish the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) that will be headquartered in Beijing. China has also participated in the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee and has become a member of the ad hoc inter-governmental Group of Earth Observations. In the next five years, China plans to place a priority on scientific research, remote sensing data sharing and services, sharing of Tracking, Telemetry and Control (TT&C) resources, as well as cooperation on the design and manufacturing of satellites and ground facilities.

Differences in Tone, Similarities in Practice

Both documents outline related objectives—the exploration and development of outer space for social progress, scientific and economic development and national security—though the discrepancies in language have contributed to the international community’s perceptions of the two space programs. Although the White House has sought to portray the NSP as simply a continuation of past administrations’ policies on space, the U.S. document has been criticized for its heavy-handed treatment of security issues. For instance, Vitaliy Davydov, deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, called the U.S. document “the first step towards a serious escalation of the military confrontation in space” (Interfax, December 1, 2006). Of particular controversy in the NSP are two principles related to the right of defense and the U.S. stance on arms control in space. The document states that the United States “will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space…and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.” Moreover, the document states that the United States “will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to space.” Critics of U.S. policy have interpreted these statements to mean that the United States is intent on the unrestricted development of space weapons.

The Chinese white paper, on the other hand, has avoided any discussion of developing military space capabilities and has sought to portray its space program in a manner that serves to assuage concerns about its possible, more assertive rise. China is “unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development,” the white paper states, “And always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind. While supporting activities that utilize outer space for peaceful purposes, China actively explores and uses outer space and continuously makes new contributions to the development of man’s space programs.” Yet, the inherent dual-use nature of space technology indicates that even as China touts its growing civil space capabilities, it is in fact developing an increasingly sophisticated military space capability that would be used in a potential conflict with the United States. The three-meter resolution of the Ziyuan satellites, for example, enables China to image aircraft, distinguish between warships and commercial ships and locate clusters of vehicles [5]. Such a space-based capability would allow the PLA to pinpoint the location of U.S. carrier battle groups and launch ballistic and cruise missiles against the ships [6]. According to the U.S. Defense Department, China is also developing anti-satellite weapons. While the report acknowledges that currently, China can only disable or destroy satellites in orbit using nuclear weapons, it assesses that China is developing a ground-based laser that can damage or blind satellites [7]. Moreover, PLA authors are explicit about the primacy of space in future battles and the need to develop space weapons [8].

With its NSP, the United States has increased the visibility of its national security concerns to its detriment and is perceived by the international community as intent on developing space weapons. China, on the other hand, has managed to accentuate its civil and commercial aspects to a degree that military applications receive little fanfare. By diverting attention away from the military uses of its space program, China has managed to portray itself as a champion of the peaceful uses of outer space that is willing to work within the international system for the benefit of all mankind. China’s downplaying of its use of the national security aspects of its space program conforms to Beijing’s grand strategy to achieve great power status within a system dominated by the United States and to increase its international influence without triggering a counterbalancing reaction. China’s space diplomacy thus facilitates its rise as a military power, while enhancing its reputation abroad.


1. Guo Duoxian, “China Is Successfully Operating 9 Satellites In Orbit (Zhongguo yi you 9 ke yingyong weixing zai taikongzhong chenggong yunxing) China Space News (Zhongguo hangtian bao) [online], September 3, 2002.

2. “2004: China Space ‘8 Rockets 10 Satellites’ (2004:Zhongguo hangtian ‘ba jian shi xing’ zaichuang huihuang),” Aerospace China (Zhongguo hangtian) [online], January 2005.

3. Reliability data is based on compilation of launch data acquired from the China Great Wall Industry Corporation website ( and individual news reports on launches in 2005.

4. “Jiangsu Province Party Committee Secretary Listens to a Report of the Successes of the Nanjing Geography and Lakes Institute (Jiangsusheng weishuji tingqu nanjing dili yu hupsuo chengguo huibao (tu)),” Chinese Academy of Science website, accessed at on October 16, 2005.

5. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006, May 23, 2006, p. 4.

6. Ibid., p. 35.

8. 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 available at