Chinese Astronauts to Compete for Final Frontier

A chain reaction of space activity, begun by Soviet-U.S competition in the 1960’s, has been duly catalyzed by China’s own manned space effort. The Middle Kingdom began its ventures into space in 1999, but soon it hopes to be only the third nation to have achieved human spaceflight. If this does happen, China’s position vis-à-vis the world - and particularly vis-à-vis the US - is bound to change forever. Through taking the step into space, China hopes to move closer to bridging the “technology gap” with the US and thereby enhance its national, regional and international position. And as an extra practical bonus, jobs for scientists and engineers, and education and specialized training for other technical personnel should lead to an overall advancement of Chinese technology and more economic growth. What really has Washington sitting up, however, is that Chinese space efforts will - indeed already do - include militarization. These activities not only encroach heavily upon the uncontested US dominance of space, but also could make the US even more aggressive in its military space activity. - YaleGlobal

Chinese Astronauts to Compete for Final Frontier

Breaking America's orbit? Beijing all set to send Chinese taikonauts into space
Joan Johnson-Freese
Friday, March 14, 2003

China's race to space, to date including a range of unmanned space activities and soon to include manned space, is about more than "just" prestige. It is about politics - domestic and international - economics, security, technology... and prestige. When the benefits are considered as a total package through Washington's prism, though, the idea that China is seeking to compensate for its military inferiority vis-à-vis the United States on earth by developing technology in space cannot be ignored.

Chinese taikonauts soon to take the road less travelled.

Does that mean that China seeks parity with US space capabilities? No. Will any substantial increase in Chinese space capabilities further encourage development of an already robust US military space program? Yes. Will that further encourage the Chinese? Yes. Clearly, there is an action-reaction cycle building, from which there is no obvious escape. Sun Tzu's adage of bearing down on the enemy seems to encapsulate the current approaches of both the United States and China. China does not have to be an enemy of the United States, but it is certainly destined to be a competitor if the United States' benchmark for competition in Asia is anything beyond the status quo, where the US holds significant if not dominant influence in the region.

China is on a fast track into space. Chinese officials state that a manned space launch is imminent - likely in the second half of 2003. The four unmanned precursor launches since 1999 of the Shenzhou (Divine or Sacred Vessel) spacecraft intended to launch their astronauts, or taikonauts, into orbit evidences substantial Chinese technical achievement and a serious program. Those achievements, plus pronouncements about timetables, space laboratories, shuttles, space stations, lunar bases, and now Mars missions make one wonder just what the Chinese are up to.

China's race to space is partly a battle with its own demons. Conquering space represents an opportunity in what China refers to as mankind's "fourth frontier" to recapture its lost legacy of technological mastery and innovation. A Chinese quest for prestige is undeniable. Chinese scientists and policy makers eagerly point out that when (not if) China launches taikonauts into space, it will be only the third country to have done so. That China may well achieve its goal while the Shuttle is grounded will further confirm to the world the degree of technical prowess achieved. The prospective domestic, regional, and international benefits accrued from that exclusivity are considerable. But are they enough for a country daily facing Herculean challenges keeping its population fed, employed, stable and pursuing essential domestic modernization, while spending an estimated two billion dollars annually on space?


Chinese military space activities will clearly also benefit from the dual-use nature of the technology being developed. Global recognition of the increasingly important role of space in military operations began with the Gulf War's unofficial proclamation as "the first space war," and has grown steadily since. Chinese government officials have subsequently included national defense in the stated aims of their own space program. Clearly, Chinese motivations for eagerly, even aggressively, pursuing a space program, including manned space, are multifaceted.

Several parallels can be drawn between US decision making supporting the Apollo program in the 1960s and that going on in China today with respect to the manned space program. As with the US in the Apollo program, domestic, regional, and international prestige are factors in Chinese decision making today. Domestically, a positive "public-rallying" factor complements national pride. Shenzhou images found on consumer goods from phone cards to water heaters basically make people feel good about themselves and their country. Also, domestic pride and international prestige yield increased governmental legitimacy - much like hosting the Olympics -- a strong consideration in Beijing. Regionally, especially in the sense that prestige implies influence, vying for the "top spot," comes into play. Many countries have satellites and launch capabilities of varying degrees; however, there are still only two countries to date with manned space programs.

Economically, the benefits for the United States of the space race generally and the Apollo program specifically were far reaching, both direct and indirect. Education and on-the-job experience for the Apollo scientists and engineers created a generation of highly trained technical personnel. Academic engineering programs were specifically created to meet the need for new and specialized aerospace skills. In China, student interest in space is said to have exploded.

Another economic payoff comes through jobs. US government money spent on the Apollo program was expected not only to get a man to the moon but to employ a great many people in the process. In China today, programs that bolster technical education and create technical jobs are of considerable interest; the lessons of Apollo have not been lost on the Chinese leadership.

Conversely, China is also aware that space programs can be viewed as desirable but expendable in favor of more pragmatic, near-term needs. Many US scientists objected to Apollo as draining funds from other programs, and politicians had other priorities. Some groups in China have quietly but deliberately made it known that they see space programs as wasteful. This new phenomenon - Chinese public opinion actually mattering to the government - demands returns on investment heretofore unnecessary.


While the United States blazed through the heavens up the steepest of learning curves during Apollo, other countries saw a technology gap developing, one potentially detrimental to their future. Subsequently, European nations aggressively pursued space activity, separately and then collectively, for economic reasons. Space, it was felt, engendered technology, technology led to industrialization, and industrialization fostered economic growth. China is keenly aware of these established relationships.

Finally, there is the military consideration. The Chinese are well aware of the current overwhelming US space dominance. They have read the 2001 report of the Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Operation (commonly known as the Space Commission Report), chaired by secretary of defense and space supporter Donald Rumsfeld. That report surmised that since air, land, and sea all have become battlegrounds, it is inevitable that space will too; the United States, it followed, would be remiss not to prepare for that inevitability. The Chinese are fully able to read between the lines regarding the implications for space weapon development. Any doubts about US intentions were, in the Chinese view, banished when the US held its first space war game in 2001.

Identifying potential military gains from technology specifically developed for manned space activities is not as straightforward as some have speculated. Nonetheless, development of space hardware and know-how for the manned programs certainly pushes the Chinese rapidly up the learning curve in everything from materials to computing power to systems engineering. Their desire and perceived need to scale that curve is unambiguous. In January 2003, the Chinese launched their second photoreconnaissance satellite, capable of resolution in the ten to twenty centimeters range. It is a military version of a satellite jointly developed by China and Brazil for remote sensing - evidencing how civil space programs can have clear military benefit.

Aiming to re-invigorate the space race?

The robustness and activism of US military space efforts under the George W. Bush administration must also be considered, and in the context of US-China relations more generally. Until "9/11," when many international relationships changed, some analysts felt that justly or unjustly, China had been deemed the next enemy of the United States. China-US relations began to show strain commencing with the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (again led by Rumsfeld); were exacerbated by the 1998 Cox Commission Report accusing US aerospace companies of giving China technical assistance in its military space program through commercial satellite launches, and aggravated by the 2001 EP-3 (intelligence gathering plane) incident; and must always be considered in the context of both American military support to Taiwan and US missile defense plans, which China perceives as severely impacting their nuclear deterrence capability.

In November 2000, the Chinese issued their white paper on space. Included in the white paper development targets were earth-observation systems, independently operated satellite broadcasting and telecommunications systems, an independent satellite navigation and positioning system, upgraded launch vehicles, a coordinated national satellite remote-sensing application system, space science, space exploration, and industrialization and marketing of space technology and applications. Equally important, the paper also declared that these ambitious goals would be achieved through adherence to the principle of long-term, stable and sustainable development and making the development of space activities part of the state's comprehensive development strategy.

The Chinese have always maximized their ability to learn from others. It is not coincidence that their Xichang launch site is at approximately 28 degrees north latitude and Kennedy Space Center is at 28.5 degrees north latitude. The Chinese picked a similar latitude to allow emulation of American postlaunch trajectories, described in some detail in open-source US literature. Even today, although the Shenzhou spacecraft bears similarities to the Russian Soyuz design, the Chinese avidly defend it as their own product, which technical comparisons seem to bear out. They view having begun with the Soyuz design rather than reinventing the wheel as simply smart business practice.

Nation on a mission - to boldly go where no Chinese has gone before.

The current manned space effort is known as Project 921. Fourteen taikonauts have been selected, and much like the first US astronauts, they were drawn from the elite ranks of military fighter pilots. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has general authority over manned spaceflight. Ultimately, however, the military (specifically the Second Artillery Corps) controls the Chinese space program.

Between 2001 and 2006 the Chinese have said they intend to launch thirty satellites as part of an expanding program culminating with human spaceflight. Further, the Chinese adamantly state that they will build a sustained program, not just plant a flag or return with a moon rock, alluding to the US abandonment of its manned lunar program and failure to step farther into space.


China has signed numerous cooperative space agreements with other countries. The scope of cooperation ranges from development of a communications satellite with Germany to a broad Russia-China cooperative agreement, to narrow scientific co-ventures. One particularly interesting cooperative arrangement is with the United Kingdom's University of Surrey Space Centre. Having built and launched over twenty-five "microsats" performing a wide range of scientific missions, including earth surveillance, Surrey specializes in marketing this new capability to developing nations, including China. The potential for using microsatellite technology as a means to interfere with other nations' use of space has been a concern. China has warned that it might consider using miscrosats to deny US use of space in a crisis or conflict.

Space weaponry, including both weapons placed in space and on the ground for use against space-based assets, has until recently been carefully avoided by all space-faring nations.

Chinese space efforts will, indeed already do, include militarization. Chinese use of satellites for troop communication or for reconnaissance equates to militarization. But the bigger question is whether China also intends to develop space weapons.

In November 2001 the Associated Press reported an official from the Chinese foreign ministry as saying, "Some powers in the world are on the way to militarizing outer space, not peacefully exploring. Another arms race in outer space has begun since 1998 and we should be watchful." Obviously, Chinese reasoning for seeking to minimize a space-technology gap with the United States falls much into the same lines as that of the United States subsequent to the Space Commission Report - each feeling that they would be imprudent not to prepare and respond. China sees the United States as having "abundant power," especially in space; with missile defense, it will have what many countries refer to as "the sword and the shield." Subsequently, a comment in a Chinese newspaper in July 2000 suggesting that for countries clearly unable to defeat the United States by tanks and aircraft, attacking its space system may be an irresistible choice, is not really surprising.


Many analysts feel that the first "space assault" will likely be a ground-based electronic attack on a satellite. There is speculation that such assaults may have already occurred, temporarily "blinding" satellites. China is purportedly aggressively working on ground-based laser technology for that purpose. The easiest way to attack and destroy a satellite, however, is with a weapon launched from the ground. A small missile could deposit a cloud of sand, ball bearings, or other hard objects in a satellite's path; the target's own velocity would provide the impact needed for destruction. A dozen or so countries have the capability to build such a system, though there is no evidence any have done so. China claims, however, to have developed "parasite satellites," orbiting bombs that attach themselves to enemy spacecraft for detonation when deemed necessary. Arguments can be made both that it behooves China to let the United States think it has these capabilities so that it will not think China's strength "inadequate," and that claims like these prod the United States to be even more aggressive in its own military space development.

As long as it can manage the economics and avoid a disastrous accident, Chinese space activities, manned and unmanned, yield only benefits. Since many of the benefits spill over into the security arena, it behooves the United States to maintain and extend its space dominance. Even without being nudged forward by the Chinese, if the United States continues to exploit the obvious militarily advantages of space, and China feels compelled to respond, a space race of some sort seems inevitable. It is inevitable because both countries recognize that space can provide advantages, or at least help avoid disadvantages, vis-à-vis the other.


Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese is Chair of the National Security Decision Making Department at the United States Naval War College. The full text of and references for this condensed article will be found in the Naval War College Review, Summer 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 3. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

© Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization