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China in Space: Implications of the Space Module Docking

Nov 15 , 2011

Most space programs involve utilitarian satellites made for communications or earth observation.  These workhorse programs rarely attract notice.  Manned space missions are different.  Despite the mystique, manned flight provides little scientific, economic, or military benefit: anything men can do in space is done better by a satellite or robot.  The motive for manned flight is political.  Nations send people into space to gain prestige and influence.  Space flight demonstrates technological prowess and buttresses great power status.  This is the context for China’s recent docking of two spacecraft. 

Space exploration has had a special place in China since the 1950s.  China planned to orbit both men and a space lab as early as the 1960s.  The space program was protected during the Cultural Revolution.  China began to design its own space shuttle in the 1970s, before moving to a capsule modeled on U.S. and Russian craft.  These plans were ambitious, but beginning with Mao, China’s leadership grasped the political importance of space.  China entered the top tier of space powers when it put a man in orbit in 2003.  It joined a select club that had only two members – the U.S. and Russia.  It reinforced its membership in this elite club less pleasantly when it became the third nation – after Russia and the U.S. – to develop and test anti-satellite weapons.  Orbital docking again shows China’s elite status.  

The message of China’s manned program to its neighbours is unequivocal.  Demonstrating that it has the financial and technical resources and the political wherewithal to undertake manned space flight reinforces to Japan, India, South Korea and others China’s assertion of leadership in the region.  Manned spaceflight gives China a special status that no other Asian country can match. 

The message to the U.S. is more ambiguous.  China wishes to compete, but perhaps also to cooperate.  The docking adaptor of the Shenzhou capsule is compatible with the International Space Station.  Docking Shenzhou to the Station would be a symbol of a closer relationship and greater trust.  However, while cooperation in space is technically possible, it is politically unlikely.  China’s appetite for illicit technology acquisition is an obstacle.  China has its own plans for space and is not interested in being junior partners.  The U.S. would need to accept this.  But China is not an equal partner and a decision to cooperate in space would increase China’s prestige in ways that could undercut U.S. interests.  

Space need not be a game where one nation can rise only if another falls.  It is not impossible to cooperate when there are systemic and military tensions – the U.S. and the USSR cooperated in space as part of the larger process of détente – but detent does not describe the current trajectory of U.S. – China relations.  While Chinese spokespersons vigorously deny it, it appears that the political leadership and the military have differing views on relations with the U.S., with the military taking a more confrontational approach.  Sino-U.S. cooperation in space is not attractive in this situation.

The first docking of two spacecraft by China sends a powerful message, but there is a danger of over-interpreting this achievement, impressive as it is, and mistaking America’s disinterest in spaceflight as a symptom of permanent decline.  The Soviets made a similar mistake when Jimmy Carter presided over a stagnant economy and a military weakened by defeat, leading them to famously declare that the “correlation of forces had shifted irrevocably to the socialist camp.”  The Soviets were wrong then and it is likely that those who trumpet decline are wrong now.  Docking signals an impressive and steady rise in China’s space capabilities, but says little about the two nations’ relative position in space or elsewhere. 

With docking, China has taken another step into the select club of spacefarers, but it is a club built fifty years ago and largely discarded by the U.S. as it no longer serves any real political purpose (for Russia, spaceflight is a way to cling to Great Power status).  In the Cold War, the space race was a symbolic battleground for two competing systems – market democracies versus state-controlled economies.  The ability to put people into space symbolized a system’s vitality.  The justification for America’s manned program was always political, not military or scientific and outside of its space community, Americans no longer care that much about manned spaceflight. 

It is best to think of America as having three separate space programs: manned, military and scientific.  America’s manned program is in disarray, but the U.S. remains paramount in military and scientific space.  Its military satellite capabilities, while costly, are unmatched by any other nation.  Its unmanned space exploration has done things no other space power can do, from landing robots on Mars to sending the world’s fastest spacecraft, powered by ion drive, to explore the edge of the solar system.

Knowledge of these achievements can be obscured as the media and commentators settle for comfortable tropes about China’s rise.  One European headline put it as “China’s huge leap forward into space threatens U.S ascendency.”  This is imbecilic.  The issue is not whether China can duplicate superpower space feats from the 1970s, it is whether the U.S. can regain its momentum. A recent World Bank Report noted, "As much as any country, China has been succesful in establishing long term plans and persevering in the implementation of these plans." This perseverance explains the success in space. In contrast, the U.S. manned space program symbolized the worst of America – bloated budgets and a focus on intricate processes rather than on outcomes.  The challenge to the U.S. is internal, and the question is whether the Shuttle’s demise, after spending billions without successfully building a replacement, is a symptom of some larger malaise.  If this is the case, China will win in more areas than space. 

For now, China’s docking does not reach the level of a space race – orbital docking is something the U.S. has done a hundred times.  But if China’s space capabilities increase and relations do not improve, competition will be reignited and, like other issues in the bilateral relationship, this will test whether the U.S. has the political resolve to reinvent itself once again and become more nimble and effective.  Cooperation would be better, but competition seems inevitable.


James Andrew Lewis is a senior fellow and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center For Strategic & International Studies, where he focuses on technology, national security, and the international economy.

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