China: Space Program and Strategy

22 Jul, 2013    ·   4046

Narayani Basu assesses the position space exploration holds vis-à-vis China’s geostrategic ambitions

On 11 June 2013, China launched its fifth manned space mission from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Atop a Long March 2F rocket, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft transported three astronauts to the Tiangong 1, a Chinese space station. What does the event say about how far China’s space program has come over the years? What place does space exploration have in China’s geostrategic ambitions?

Orbiting Ambitions
The launch highlights China’s growing space ambitions and appears to be one of the culminating steps to a three-phase program of slow but incremental advancement laid out in the 1990s. Between 1992 and 2012, China carried out the first two phases of this program, launching a total of eight astronauts into space. June’s launch of the Shenzhou-10 marks the beginning of the third phase of China’s space program. As part of this phase, the Tiangong-2 space laboratory will be launched in 2015, with an experimental core space station module around 2018. The ultimate aim is to build a 60-ton multi-module space station by 2020.

China’s recent launch comes at a time when the US’ space program is showing signs of struggling under changing budgets, goals, and policies. For example, the Bush administration’s plans to return a man to the moon was shelved under the Obama administration which put in place a crewed mission to an asteroid instead. China, on the other hand, has remained steady on its path towards achieving its ambitions in outer space, with the underline being on rapid development and lower costs. In a statement to the Beijing Review,  Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program, said that the United States spends as much on its space program in one year (USD 6.35 billion) as China spent on its program in twenty years (RMB 39 billion).  A key reason for this is the fact that the United States, Russia, and Europe began their ventures into space technology and exploration much earlier than China. Technology and infrastructure required for China to put its own program into place, then, already existed, making it less expensive and far easier to work with. Indeed, though the technology is already in place, China is putting much emphasis on using non-toxic and non-polluting rocket fuel for its newer rockets, keeping in line with the new leadership’s desire to make economic, political, and military strides while maintaining environmental cleanliness.

China’s space exploration program is making strides towards the completion of its third phase. On 15 July 2013, the Long March 5 – the rocket engine that will power the country’s planned space station – was successfully test-fired. The Long March 5 is one of China’s new generation of rockets, which feature larger carrying capacities and are being developed during the country’s Twelfth Five Year Plan period (2011-2015). Additionally, the country is also developing a successor to the Long March 5, called the Long March 7. A new rocket launch centre at Hainan is also being planned, at a total cost of RMB 5 billion. This new centre will host the launches of heavy geostationary telecommunication satellites, support missions for the construction of China’s space station, Tiangong-2, and will also help in furthering the country’s lunar exploration agenda.

Space and Geostrategy
Making strides in space exploration is part of the new leadership’s vision of a strong China. Indeed, the return of Shenzhou-10 to Earth has been hailed by Chinese leaders and citizens alike as not just successful, but a prestige-building demonstration of China’s growing technical expertise. The Chinese focus on progress in space exploration is, however, not so much about prestige as it is about the sheer importance of new strides in space for the military and economic progress of the country.  Put plainly, it must be remembered that China’s space program is not only geared towards maintaining a global presence. If Chinese strategists are looking ahead, then space is, quite literally, the last frontier, in terms of future economic development and strategic advantage. One very real example of the kind of economic potential space offers is asteroid mining. Being rich in minerals and ores, asteroids are seen as essential starting points for goals such as establishing colonies on Mars or the moon.

One up-man-ship is not the only bottom line for Beijing. With the new leadership looking to put new, innovative and more eco-friendly ways of economic growth in place, China is looking to develop what several Chinese experts are calling its ‘aerospace economy’. To this end, China has been using recoverable satellites and the Shenzhou spacecraft themselves to carry crop seeds and microbial strains to space. The goal is to use cosmic radiation to mutate seeds and produce several different hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables, with an eye to put in place new economic drivers and build an innovation-oriented country.

Space technology also has important ramifications for the progress of earth-based technologies as well, such as improved cellphone, weather, and GPS coverage and enhanced mapping technologies. With the United States, Russia, and Europe continuing efforts for resource acquisition in outer space, to further embed their strategic and military footprints in the arena, Beijing knows that it cannot afford to be left behind.