Written by Dean Cheng.

As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) assumes an increasingly significant role in the world, its influence grows across a wide array of sectors. This comports with the Chinese method of assessing its security and standing, which is typically couched in terms of “comprehensive national power” or zonghe guojia liliang (综合国家力量). Comprehensive national power includes not only calculations of military capability and economic strength, but also diplomatic respect, political cohesion, levels of scientific and technical attainment, and even cultural security. Space policy, according to Chinese writings, affects many of these elements.

Space and Comprehensive National Power

Chinese leaders have long been interested in space. In 1956, Qian Xuesen created the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of Defense responsible for air and space capabilities. In May 1958, Mao Zedong stated that “we should also manufacture satellites.”[1] This was a remarkable commitment, given that China at this point was still recovering from the devastation of World War II, was largely illiterate, and was economically a midget. The two superpowers were themselves only just entering the space arena. Russia had just launched Sputnik in the previous year. China’s interest in space, in short, began long before it had the wherewithal to actually explore or exploit it.

Current Chinese space development reflects China’s growing economic power; after all, a nation must achieve a certain level of economic capacity before it can develop the scientists and industrial resources necessary to undertake space activities. At the same time, a strong space program can foster national economic development. As Chinese writings regularly note, space systems are a dense accumulation of various high technologies, so pushing space development leads to improvements in communications, computers, advanced materials, power sources, etc.

China also sees its space program as a means of as promoting the development of science and technology, with the added benefit of inspiring students to enter the aerospace field. Moreover, the Chinese use their space program to support their diplomatic efforts. The most prominent vehicle for this is perhaps the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, or APSCO. Headquartered in Beijing, it includes Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand; Indonesia and Turkey have also signed the convention.[2] Note that neither Japan nor India is a member. In addition, China has employed a turn-key approach to satellite sales to build satellites for Nigeria and Venezuela and to make further sales to Pakistan and Bangladesh. At the recent International Astronautical Congress, Chinese participants again reiterated their interest in international collaboration.

The Chinese space program has also been employed to appeal to Taiwan as well as Chinese constituencies. For the first manned Shenzhou launch, in 2003, the Chinese invited the authorities in Taipei to share in the glory of this Chinese achievement by providing a small cargo item, (Interestingly, the Taiwanese provided a bag of seeds for the historic mission.). Very clearly, the Party has sought to employ the space program to provide legitimacy for its own various activities.

Space and the PLA

In addition to the more peaceful applications of space capability, the PRC seeks to exploit the military aspects of space power. It is essential to first recognize that this is not your father’s or grandfather’s PLA. The Chinese military no longer relies on “rifles and millet,” or human wave tactics. Instead, this is a learning organization, fielding sophisticated weapons, preparing to wage joint operations as part of local wars under informationized conditions, across the land, sea, and air domains, but also in outer space and cyber-space, employing not only land, sea, and air forces, but special operations units, an array of ballistic missiles, and hard- and soft-kill systems against terrestrial and space targets.

It is also absolutely vital to keep in mind that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a Party-army. That is, it is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As such, its first duty is to the Party. The PLA soldier, sailor, and airman swear loyalty first to the Party, not to the PRC constitution or the government. It is in this light that one should consider Hu Jintao’s December 2004 speech to an expanded session of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the entity that manages the PLA. In that speech, Hu laid out the “new historic missions of the PLA (jundui xinde lishi shiming; 军队新的历史使命).”  The first role that Hu assigned to the PLA was to preserve the control of the Party. The second was to provide the security environment necessary to sustain national economic development. And the third was to preserve China’s interests, including specifically in outer space.

The PLA views control of the outer space and cyber-space domains as essential. As noted earlier, the PLA describes future wars as being “local wars under informationized conditions (xinxihua tiaojian xia jubu zhanzheng; 信息化条件下局部战争).”  PLA writings, including military textbooks and authoritative journal articles, assert that the key to fighting and winning such wars is the ability to establish information dominance or superiority (zhi xinxiquan; 制信息权), which in turn relies upon establishing space dominance or superiority (zhitian quan; 制天权).[3] At its most basic, this means having the ability to exploit space at times and places of one’s own choosing, while preventing an opponent from doing the same. PLA writings about space dominance often discuss space deterrence. These discussions note that testing space weapons can to both dissuade and coerce potential opponents. These writings date back to at least 2004—significantly predating the Chinese ASAT test of 2007.

In this context, it is essential to recognize that the Chinese space effort is operated by the People’s Liberation Army. China’s launch sites, its tracking, telemetry and control facilities and its mission control facilities are all run by the General Armaments Department of the PLA—one of the four general departments that oversee the military. The personnel manning those facilities are PLA soldiers, trained at the Academy of Command Equipment and Technology (zhuangbei zhihui jishu xueyuan; 装备指挥技术学院)—an institution directly subordinate to the GAD. China’s fleet of space-tracking ships belongs, not to the PLA Navy, but to the GAD.  Indeed, there is such a heavy military role in China’s space program, it may be inappropriate to talk about a civilian and a military space program as though the two were firewalled and separated.

Implications for the US Space Program

In thinking about how China’s space program affects the American effort, context is paramount. The United States and the PRC are competitors. These countries share significant interests (especially economically), even as they diverge in terms of geopolitics and regional security outlook. More to the point, the US and the PRC are not engaged in a space race. China is not racing the United States; it is building a space infrastructure to suit its requirements and needs, and is not doing so according to some timetable of beating the United States. US-China space interactions, then, are a function of the larger US-PRC relationship. It is unlikely, and arguably unhealthy, for space to get too far ahead of what the politics will bear. Instead, the state of the US-PRC relationship will, and should, define the limits and art of the possible in terms of space interactions between Washington and Beijing.

Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. Image credit: CC by Ming Xia/Flickr.


[1] Deng Liqun, ed., China Today: Defense Science and Technology, Vol. I (Beijing, PRC: National Defence Industry Press, 1993), p. 356.
[2] Oddly, neither is listed as a member state on the APSCO web-site, although it is noted that they attended the first conference, in December 2008.
[3] For further discussion of how the PLA views space capabilities, please see, “China’s Military Role in Space,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring, 2012).


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