China In Outer Space: A Strategy For Global Supremacy? – Analysis


By Radhakrishna Rao

A recently unveiled white paper spells out the future course of the Chinese space program with the objective of closing the gap with Russia and the US, the two space front runners. What propels China to give a quickening impetus to its space programme? What are the priorities of China in its quest of establishing space supremacy through the leadership position in space?

The thrust areas pointed out to in the white paper include:

(a) construction of an orbiting space station before the end of this decade
(b) lunar exploration including a sample return mission to moon and human landing mission to moon
(c) boosting launch capability and development of a global navigation satellite network to rival American GPS system
(d) pushing forward in the exploration of planets, asteroids and the sun


Clearly and apparently, China stands to derive strategic advantages from the space projects unveiled in the white paper. For instance, an autonomous orbiting complex could help China bolster its space war efforts by serving as a strategic outpost in outer space. Similarly, a string of advanced satellites meant for a variety of end-uses that China plans to launch will serve as “ears and eyes” to keep a tab on the adversaries. In the longer run, China looks at space as a vital platform for boosting the combat readiness of its armed forces.

According to a study by the Washington based World Security Institute, Chinese reconnaissance satellites can now monitor targets for up to six hours a day. Till twenty months back, PLA could just manage doing three hours of daily coverage from space. ”Starting from almost no live surveillance capability ten years ago, today PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has equaled the US ability to observe targets from space for real time operations,” says researchers at the World Security Institute. Not surprisingly, then the US is worried that it will have difficult times moving its naval forces closer to Taiwan without coming under the prying eyes of Chinese spy satellites.

In addition to reinforcing its technological supremacy, deeper forays in space provides China a springboard to expand its soft power in the third world by making available its know-how and expertise on “reasonable commercial terms” to countries wishing to undertake a space journey. Here are the examples:

  • China launched Pakistan’s advanced communications satellite Paksat-1R by means of a Long March vehicle in last August
  • China also clinched a deal with Bolivia to build and launch a satellite for this Latin American country.

The accomplishment by China of its first ever automated docking exercise in November 2011 was a space breakthrough that has brought it closer to Moscow and Washington in terms of establishing a long-term manned presence in outer space. This docking exercise between Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 module is a precursor to a 60-tonne orbital complex to be established by 2020. The accomplishment of China’s first manned mission in 2003 followed by the second human flight in 2005 along with the “space walk” performed in 2008 paved the ground for China’s space docking exercise.

To support the high intensity growth of its space programme, China is now building its fourth advanced spaceport near the city of Wenchang in Hainan island which happens to be the focus of a massive Chinese naval build up. This well equipped, ultra modern orbital complex expected to be ready by 2013 will support the launch of modules of space stations, deep space probes as well as heavier class satellites. This would be China’s first coastal launch pad that would help China grab an increasing share of the global market for launching satellites on commercial terms. According to Chinese space experts, the strategic location of this new launch pad close to the equator would help increase the payload mass of the launch vehicles taking off from here by a substantial extent. All the three currently operational Chinese launch centres are land-locked.

Indeed, there is a growing concern in the US over China’s steady advances in outer space. While the fund crunch and lack of political support continues to cast a shadow over the US space programme, China has no problem mobilizing massive resources required to boost its space programme. In particular, the anti-satellite test carried out by China in early 2007 has rattled the American military establishment which feels that its own preparations for space weaponisation could be overshadowed by a new comer like China. As defence analysts point out, China’s rapidly expanding space programme has the potential to alter the power dynamics in much of Asia and adversely affect US hold on the region. Even as the US has all along been alleging that the Chinese space programme is to a large extent a “military show”, China has been insisting that its space programme is aimed at peaceful uses.

To add to the concern of the US, China matched America’s number of launches during 2010 for the first time. And during 2011, it accomplished more than 20 orbital missions, making it the second country after Russia to log such a large number of space launches. “Over the past one decade, China has arguably gone further, faster than any other space faring nations,” says an analysis by the technology management consulting firm Futron Corp.


Radhakrishna Rao
Freelancer, Bangalore
email:[email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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