Space: China’s New Frontier


Space is China’s new frontier. Beijing recognizes that global dominance in the decades ahead cannot come about unless it can attain predominance in one of the three mediums in which all human activity is conducted, land, sea and aero space. While China has traditionally been a continental power, it has increased its presence in the oceans with a fillip to shipping both civil and military. However, the Chinese probably recognize that they would not be able to attain dominance of the seas due to factors as geography as well as history and tradition. The aerospace medium is one arena where Beijing seems confident of attaining control over its trans terrestrial area of influence particularly in the space domain.

China is leveraging the relatively limited number of players operating in space to advantage by developing capabilities, which may some day even challenge the United States, despite US policy of retaining primacy in this sphere. The Anti Satellite Test conducted by China on 11 January this year is just one indication of Beijing’s intent. Curiously, China first acknowledged having conducted ASAT only on 23 January a full 12 days later allowing others to debate the issue so that an appropriate response could be prepared. This suitable response was as expected. The Chinese spokesperson stated that the ASAT was not aimed at any one. However, the ASAT is just a tip of the, “space berg” as China has prepared a well-drafted plan for achieving space dominance.

China’s State Council recently approved the country’s 11th five-year plan on space development covering the period from 2006 – 2010 with manned space flight, lunar exploration, new launch vehicles and high-resolution earth observation being areas of priority. China will develop nearly 100 spacecrafts during this period.

China’s focus in space is on three primary areas where use of the medium will give Beijing an overwhelming advantage; these are satellite navigation systems, remote sensing and space communications. The interlinking of these technologies is designed to achieve what the Chinese are now calling a spatial information super highway. This will include a network of communication and broadcasting, earth resource, meteorological, navigation, scientific experiment satellites, and so on.

China hopes to involve the private sector to sell these technologies in a big way and develop the space service sector. That these are dual use technologies, providing the Chinese considerable leverage economically as well as militarily is well known.

Chinese forays into space are not just restricted to common user technologies but will also extend to research in green field areas of black hole physics and hard X-rays. For this purpose a recoverable satellite, Shijian-10 is being launched and a telescope established. The key areas in advanced space research have been identified as, space astronomy and solar physics, space physics and solar system exploration, and, microgravity science and space life science. For satellite launch a new generation of rocket, “Long March V” is being developed in seven to eight years, which would be used to launch a space station. China is increasingly focusing on developing satellites in ‘generations’ thereby providing a benchmark to progress.

Moreover, satellites are going to be purpose oriented. Some will provide meteorological and disaster monitoring as well as facilitate emergency response. Reports last year indicated that the Chinese have envisaged a satellite network for monitoring and response for disasters. Satellites as the Marine 2 are under development for surveys of winds and waves, gravitational field in the oceans, circulation and other marine information.

“Chang’e 1” is China’s first satellite to be launched in the lunar exploration series. The programme will eventually include a soft landing device and a lunar rover for site exploration and inspection. This will use the Long March 3 A carrier rockets thereby indicating that the entire programme has indigenous content.

At the present levels of deployment as well as projected plans, the Chinese would not pose a threat of destabilizing the global space order. The United States will no doubt remain supreme. Yet the contours of space dominance with a player of China’s singular focus and ability to expend national resources unhesitatingly in areas of prime concern would some day challenge even NASA. In characteristic style, the Chinese dismiss notions of competition in space but Chinese ASAT and the nuanced approach to projecting this achievement is a cause of concern. Chinese intentions may well change once Beijing feels it has attained the critical mass where it can challenge US supremacy. This time may come sooner rather than later.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.