China in space: lone ranger or cooperative power?

February 28, 2022
“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream”. This declaration from President Xi Jinping reflects the outlines of China’s strategy in outer space. While the country shares various similarities with fellow space powers, one can wonder about China’s space strategy considering its tense situation within the international community. Are they playing the lone wolf, or are they willing to contribute to mankind’s biggest challenges?
China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, Zhuhai, 2018

The highlights of China’s history in space

The Chinese space story followed a similar timeline to many other spacefaring nations. Developing technology since the 1950s (mostly through R&D on missiles), they successfully launched and recovered an experimental rocket housing white mice in 1964. In April 1970, they put into orbit their first artificial satellite Dongfanghong I, which was broadcasting the revolutionary song of the same name for two months. It occurred just a few months after Japan’s first launch, making China the fifth country to send an artificial satellite in space. For organisational purposes, they established the Ministry of Aerospace Industry in 1988, which split up a few years later into the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. They also became in 2003 the third country, after the US and the USSR, to send a human to space. The taikonaut, Yang Liwei, stayed in orbit for a total of 21 hours. Most recently, China set up a total of four main launch centers on their territory. The possession of launch technology situates China as one of the leading spacefaring nations while many countries still have to rely on others (including China) to develop and launch their own space assets. Finally, they possess anti-satellite missile technology. 

Like all space programmes, China also encountered many failures. Some launches did not succeed, including two in Spring 2020, and the loss of the Tiangong-1 space station. With its impressive development China is contributing to one of the biggest international space issues: space debris. This is a failure to take into account hazards created by space assets. For instance, their anti-satellite missile test in 2007 (on a defunct Chinese satellite) scattered 3500 debris into uncontrollably orbit, threatening other space assets including the International Space Station’s (ISS). It already forced the ISS to manoeuvre to avoid crashes. In another example of apparent recklessness, the country has been criticised for losing control of launched rockets once they make their way back to Earth.
DongFangHong I, China’s first satellite at the Space technology exhibition in Hohhot

China’s current space strategy

China’s official stance on space is similar to other space powers: the promotion of the space industry, the contribution to the peaceful use of outer space and the “civilization and progress of mankind”, in order to “raise the scientific and cultural level of the Chinese people”. Space is also an important domain for security, it is necessary for China to promote their national space interests. Building space-related capacities increases the country’s strength, obviously, and reinforces the presence of China in the global spacefaring community. Moreover, the country develops its space industry as a continuation of the state’s own development. Finally, they are also willing to promote international cooperation to achieve common goals, mostly about research and progress.

In their quest to reach new heights, China currently has multiple ambitious programmes. In 1992, a three-step strategy set up by the Chinese government was announced, called the manned space programme. Those steps are: first, the launch of a manned spaceship able to transport a crew, second, improving technology in a few fields such as extravehicular activities, docking capabilities, and space labs. The final step is the establishment of a space station, which allows long-term stays of human crews in space.

In terms of concrete actions, China has a variety of launch vehicles, is capable of assuring commercial space flight, and possesses many satellites for different purposes (scientific observation, communication, broadcasting, navigation, military, etc.). China has also aimed at the Moon and Mars. In 2019, the Change-4 mission landed a spacecraft to analyse and collect data from the soil of the far side of the Moon, a first in space history. Its major breakthrough is discovering that the top layer of its soil was thicker than expected. In May 2021, China also became the second country after the US to land a rover on Mars. Finally, China has declared aiming at sending people on the Moon before 2030. With a total space budget of $8.9 billion (second to the US), this is where China stands now.

International cooperation: is China isolated?

Cooperation between countries is indispensable to bear the high costs involved but also to share knowledge and progress science. It is also a means to ease tensions and facilitate general cooperation between countries, like the US and the USSR during the Cold War with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first-ever international human flight in space. China’s official stance involves cooperation within the framework of the UN, supporting any other space industry development organisation, serving the general goals of the Belt and Road Initiative (one being the setup of a Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor, mostly related to satellites), the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, and cooperation with BRICs countries. A 2016 White Paper lists the key partners, in which the US does not figure but many European countries and even Japan are prominent. There is a simple reason explaining the American absence: the Wolf Amendment, which forbade NASA to cooperate with China, citing fears of spying and technological theft. China is open to cooperation with the US, but this situation is trending towards a new Space Race. Currently, sending humans on the Moon again is the target, and NASA’s Artemis programme aims for the ambitious deadline of 2024. Who will be first?

The China Space Station

While in the past, there have been several space stations in orbit, there are only two currently operational: the International Space Station (ISS), and Tiangong (which means “palace in the sky”), the Chinese Space Station (CSS). Since the US refuses to cooperate with the Chinese, the Chinese were denied participation in the ISS. Therefore, it is only reasonable for China to develop its own station. The CSS is in effect Tiangong-2, as the first one launched in 2011 was lost after a few years. The second project started in 2021 and the modular space station aims to be fully assembled by the end of 2022. China will be able to have long-term missions in space, not just return short flights, which displays real progress, and represents the last step of the manned space programme.

But this is not a project China has undertaken alone: the CSS serves as a “platform for international cooperation”. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) proposed nine experiments to be carried out aboard the CSS in collaboration with a total of 17 countries from all over the world, excluding the US.
Tiangong Space Station model
Source: Shujianyang via Wikimedia Commons

What is China’s real space strategy?

Initially, the main goal of China was the development of a space programme to gain international prestige. According to China’s official strategy planning, the country aims to reach a similar level of space capability as the US. To date they are performing well in all aspects of the space industry and exploration.

Moreover, space diplomacy is a tool to enhance power and prestige. China opening up the CSS to international cooperation can be interpreted as a way to polish its image: the country is not isolated. China has also been helping other countries with space related projects. For instance, it has been cooperating and sharing knowledge with Brazil for the development of remote sensing satellites in the 1990s and providing Japan remote sensing data after the 2011 tsunami. But this is not a unique case, all countries with such space capabilities are also providing technological help and knowledge: Japan, for example, is launching satellites on behalf of other countries.

China is not isolated, actually the contrary. They collaborate with countries on all continents, except, as explained, with the US. Space is a great arena for competition, as it is a domain in which a country can display its strength in various ways. Militarily, if it possesses launching capabilities and intelligence satellites, but also in the sciences. However, the key to progress is international cooperation. China is showing strong determination to be a leader in the field by partnering up with many nations and investing in every single area of space research. If the country improves technology, avoids losing control of their assets and reduces space waste, it is set to become a great space power.
Olivia Culot
Head of Culture and Arts, Olivia is part of the Asian Studies Master’s programme thanks to her interest in the region, particularly in Japan.
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