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Miscalculations about China’s Space Dream

Jun 26 , 2013
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

On June 11, China successfully launched its fifth manned spacecraft, sending three astronauts on a 15-day space trip. The mission “carries a space dream of the Chinese nation,” President Xi Jinping told the crew before launch. However, as represented by the US DOD’s annual report on China’s military power (hereinafter referred to as CMPR), there are several miscalculations about China’s space dream. 

The first miscalculation is that the intention of China’s development of space capabilities is to extend its strategic and military power in the space domain. The State Council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has issued three editions of space white papers, reiterating that China is “to utilize outer space for peaceful purposes.” Nevertheless, since 2007 the CMPR has categorized China’s space capabilities as strategic ones and regarded them “as bolstering national prestige … demonstrating the attributes of a world power,” and having “significant implications for anti-access/area-denial in Taiwan Strait contingencies and beyond.” 

The second miscalculation is that China is weaponizing outer space. The most widely cited example is the test of a direct-ascent missile against a PRC weather satellite in January 2007. Since then, the CMPR has claimed that China is developing “a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict,” and the alleged anti-satellite weapons include kinetic and directed-energy (e.g., lasers, high-powered microwave, and particle beam) weapons, and even nuclear weapons. As a matter of fact, China has constantly opposed any weaponization of outer space. While the US is conducting a series of space wargames codenamed “Schriever” to ensure American preeminence in space, China and Russia have sought a comprehensive arms control in outer space for a number of years. No wonder some scholars commented that the 2007 test was diplomatic in nature, intended to put pressure on the United States to negotiate a treaty. 

The third miscalculation is that most China’s civilian space endeavors have military purposes. The arguments go as follows: Firstly, space launch and control capabilities “have direct military application.” The CMPR believes that the development of Long March rockets facilitates is the improvement of ballistic missiles and thus can lift heavier payloads over longer ranges. In fact, the liquid-fueled Long March 2F carrier rocket requires 20 hours to fuel, providing neither the flexibility nor the mobility as American missiles. Secondly, manned space programs benefit the development of defensive and offensive space operations. It is predicted that advances in navigation and tracking, in-orbit maneuvering, and computational analysis can serve those purposes. It should be pointed out that these advances do not constitute scientific breakthroughs and such capabilities as in-orbit maneuvering were developed in the 1970s. Thirdly, many of China’s space programs, “including the manned program and the planned space station, are run by the PLA.” Well, it is the same for other space giants. Their astronauts have also been selected from air force pilots and supported by military resources. 

The fourth miscalculation is that China poses a challenge to US space dominance. In reality, China has neither the intention nor capabilities to challenge others. As previously mentioned, China has long been opposed to arms race in outer space. More importantly, China’s space capabilities remain decades behind those of other modern nations. The technology used in 2007 only marginally surpassed that of the American air-launched miniature vehicle system test in 1985 and the Soviet co-orbital system tests from 1963 to the 1980s. The latest Shenzhou-10 mission is still testing rudimentary extra-vehicular activities and space docking skills, while the United States and the Soviet Union conducted their spacewalks in 1965. China’s Long March rockets carry much lower payloads than NASA’s Saturn V, and Tiangong-1 is much smaller than both the Soviet Mir space station and the International Space Station. In particular, China has not followed the Soviet model of building organizations with the arsenal to challenge American dominance

China is having a peaceful space dream and reaching for the stars. It is one of China’s dreams to catch up with other powers and realize the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

Zhao Weibin is a Research Fellow for the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science.

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