China’s Space Docking Success: Strategic Implications – Analysis


By Radhakrishna Rao

The successful accomplishment of its first ever docking exercise in outer space on 3 November was a major technological breakthrough for China, and now holds the potential to bring Beijing closer to Moscow and Washington in terms of establishing a long-term manned presence in space. Indeed, the smooth coupling of Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft launched on 1 November with the eight-tonne heavy Tiangong-1(Heavenly Palace) space module put into orbit in late September has clearly demonstrated China’s prowess in an advanced technique that was earlier the exclusive preserve of the US and Russia. China looks at this “space spectacle” as yet another step towards expanding the frontiers of its space enterprise with its objectives clearly set on emerging as a global space leader. As stated by President Hu Jintao, “Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space programme.”


Clearly, the Chinese Communist Party has every reason to project this success as a beginning for turn-around in the fortunes of this once poverty stricken Asian demographic billionaire. Echoing the sentiments of the ruling party, the Global Times reported, “as long as we are determined to rise in the world and pursue rejuvenation, we need to take risks. Otherwise, China will be a nation with prosperity but subordinated to top powers”. The message of this observation is clear: China should prepare the ground to overtake the US both in strategic and space spheres. But as things stand now, China will need to go a long way before it catches up with and overtakes the US to emerge as a global space and military supremo.

The Space Competitiveness Index prepared by the technology management firm Futron Corporation reveals that China matched America’s number of launches during 2010 for the first time. The conclusion of Futron Corp’s analysis is that the US is fast losing ground to global competitors as its space policy continues to be vulnerable to political compulsions compounded by the economic recession. With a robust budgetary support, the Chinese space programme makes for a win-win proposition. “Over the past decade, China has arguably gone further, faster than any other space faring nation,” says Futron Corporation.

However, in the immediate future, this space success is not expected to yield any strategic dividends to China. “It is not going to immediately provide China any military capabilities,” says Joan Johnson Freese, an expert on Chinese space programme at the US Naval War College on Rhode Island. But this impressive achievement would help China, the world’s second largest economy, to realize a 60-tonne orbital complex by 2020 when the International Space Station (ISS) being operated by a multi-national team including the US and Russia will be shut down. Though the Chinese orbital station will be much smaller than ISS, it will pave the way for China building larger space stations with longer life spans.

An autonomous orbital complex could definitely help China bolster its space war efforts by serving as strategic outpost in space. Western strategic observers believe China’s space strides reflect the country’s rapid militarization on ground, sea and air. China looks at space as a vital platform for effectively using its armed forces against adversaries (Ashely Tellis). According to Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Centre in Washington DC, this achievement coming as it does soon after the US space shuttle programme stood terminated “is a powerful political signal that China is an ascendant and the US is descendent”. Thus, docking techniques and associated technologies being mastered by China have obvious long-term military implications.

India, which was rattled in 2007 by the Chinese anti-satellite manoeuvre, should seriously look at the implications of the Chinese move for an orbital station. For PLA (People’s Liberation Army) could effectively harness the potentials of a manned space station to provide a greater punch to its combative power in the event of a war with India. Moreover, with the PLA acquiring similar capabilities to that of the US to observe targets from space for real time operations, even the US will have difficult times moving its naval forces close to Taiwan without coming under the prying eyes of Chinese space birds. In particular India’s defence establishment should take cognizance of Chinese moves to develop the so called beam weapons based on laser devices that could be deployed both as an anti-satellite device and a substitute for military missiles. In fact, sometime back India’s Defence Minister A. K. Antony had expressed concern over the Chinese move to refine space war techniques.

With a view to insulate Indian space assets from the threat of “rogue satellites” and also prepare India to face the space warfare of the future with confidence, V. K. Saraswat, Chief of Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has hinted at the need for India to build killer satellite devices, laser beam weapons and a range of military satellites to support Indian defence forces in the battlefield. Ignoring the threat of space war from across the border would certainly mean a repetition of the 1962 humiliating debacle; hence the Indian government should consider these suggestions seriously.

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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