China’s space goals

Prestige seeking or practical economic dividend?

Namrata Goswami

International relations, National security, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia

19 January 2017

How realistic are China’s outer space ambitions? Namrata Goswami canvasses the differing views of security experts and scientists to pinpoint the likely trajectory for policy being put into practice.

In order to engage Chinese academics, think tanks and policymakers on the subject of China’s long-term goals regarding space resources, I undertook a field visit to China from 5 to 20 November 2016. I consulted with leading Chinese representatives from each of these groups specifically focused on space, and asked them questions about space-based solar power, asteroid and lunar mining and deep space exploration. I enquired as to whether China’s space aspirations were moving from prestige-seeking behaviour toward economic development of the space domain.

I discovered that specialists in security studies and international relations tend to be pessimistic about China’s capability to achieve the goals set by its space scientists and policymakers about space resources.

Many argued that China is not a lead innovator in space but a “follower” of the United States’ space activities. Some argue that enhancing national prestige and international status continue to remain the prime motivating factors. At the grand strategic level, Chinese thinkers suggested that outer space investments serve a legitimising function for the Communist Party of China (CPC).

A notable exception came from individuals interviewed with closer ties to the CPC who emphasised that China will be investing heavily in space resources in the long-term as part of its national and economic development goals. They further argued that China’s need for resources to sustain its economic development will inspire China to look towards outer space.

Five major, yet contrasting, themes emerged during the field study.

First, Chinese thinkers conceptualised space within the ‘global commons’ or termed it as the common heritage of mankind. Hence, China prioritises the framework of cooperation. Chinese experts argued that the world lacks a common regulatory framework and there is no broad consensus amongst nations as to how conflict over space resources would be resolved. They expressed concern for the lack of an ideational framework that informs the conditions for cooperation. Shared interests and broad societal consensus on space cooperation were identified as some of the core conditions for cooperation. Several thinkers expressed a preference for ‘space cooperation’ within the field of ‘global governance’.

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Second, Chinese experts argued that China suffers from a ‘vulnerability complex’ with regard to US space activities – especially its perceived ‘militarisation’ of space. Chinese thinkers tend to view China’s military space activities as a reaction to US activities, which they viewed as threatening to China. In this view, China’s use of space for military purposes is regarded as defensive.

Third, Chinese experts broadly expressed a desire to cooperate with the United States in outer space but stated that such cooperation is difficult due to US Congressional legislation debarring it. Interestingly, they assert that this prohibition has had a positive impact on China’s space goals. A lack of high-technology cooperation with the US has encouraged indigenous space capacity-building and the development of expertise, with the CPC investing heavily in China’s space program.

Chinese experts believe that the US will be forced to cooperate when China has its own permanent space station at a time when the International Space Station is due to retire (2025). Some argued that this Chinese capacity will, in the long term, be utilised for harnessing space-based resources.

Fourth, there existed a vast ‘paradigmatic gap’ between those who specialise in international relations and grand strategy and those who specialise in space. For instance, security studies experts tend to downplay China’s space ambitions insisting that space scientists compete for state resources and hence they exaggerate China’s space capacity and goals. Space law experts, meanwhile, assert that harvesting space resources could be feasible in the long-term but is not practicable in the short-term.

These divergent views are problematic as they imply that there is very little conversation between space scientists and technocrats and those who study international relations within China. Apparently, Chinese strategic and space law experts and foreign policy officials were unaware of the 2007 ASAT test, and hence could not warn those involved, about its negative global fallout, both from the point of view of international security as well as creating the largest space debris on record.

Fifth, those with direct knowledge of China’s space program identified three major goals behind China’s space activities – economic development, scientific curiosity, and national defence.

Significantly, during my field visit, the general impression I inferred from several discussions was that China would prefer a globalist framework over a nationalist framework, though it was not adverse to the idea of a minimalist competitive environment in outer-space.

Chinese experts emphasised their view – that Western scholars exaggerate the militaristic aspects of Chinese strategic culture while completely ignoring concepts of strategic harmony. This is because these scholars focus on a limited period of Chinese history (the Ming Period), overstate the offensive use of force, which in some instances was utilised by Ming emperors purely in defence against the Mongols, and generalise from that vantage point about thousands of years of Chinese historical experience.

Overall, there were mixed responses from security studies experts and space experts on China’s space goals. Most security studies and international relations experts argued that China is not capable of harnessing space resources in the short-term.

This pessimistic perspective does not, however, contradict the space scientists’ optimistic view that China has started basic research on harnessing space-based resources, which will see results only in the 2030-2050 timeframe. It appears to reflect a difference in perceptions regarding realistic timeframes for planning, with security experts concerned with the next five years, and space scientists with considerably longer planning horizons.

The longer time horizon remains relevant to the international audience because if one observes China’s past space behaviour, most stated space goals located within a 20-year frame have been met. For instance, in the 1970s, China said that it would send an unmanned spacecraft into space in 20 years; in 1999, the first Chinese unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou (Our Divine Land), was launched. The story of the Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 space stations runs a parallel course.

A similar path is likely to unfold with regard to China’s stated goals for harnessing space-based solar power, asteroid and lunar mining in the next 20-30-year timeframe. The 2016 China White paper on space specifies China’s goal to become a space-based civilisation with a soft landing planned on the far side of the moon by 2018 and a Mars probe by 2020. I believe that the more China succeeds in reaching these stated goals, the more it will look to space to achieve economic development and social progress.

All views expressed in this piece solely represent the view of the author.

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One Response

  1. SuchindranathAiyerS says:

    It is true that China follows the US trajectory. All the more reason to worry. Ming and the tale of Admiral Zheng He, together with Budhism and Confucianism were burnt at the stake by Maoism’s cultural revolution. Remember?

    I recollect, here, what I had written on OBOR which is equally applicable to CPEC: and all of China’s programs:

    One Belt One Road. (OBOR) is the revival of a Historical trade route that was carved by daring entrepreneurs for profit into a latter day concept that positions the Middle Kingdom at the center of the emerging World.

    Legitimate? Perhaps. If it were not for China’s territorial ambitions that are explicit and based on a peculiar notion of History derived from a time where there were no real borders and large tracts of Chinese History knew little outside China and considered China to be the World. Witness Tibet, Leh, Ladakh, Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and so on.

    Harmless? Perhaps. But China has never made a secret of its intentions to take revenge for past “humiliations”. Witness Japan and India (as a British proxy during the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and so on).

    This is serious demand. Desire backed by adequate military power.

    The US, as China rightly reflects, was driven largely by the impulse to derive profits to the benefit of a small minority of its ruling class. China is driven by the desire to benefit its ruling “proletariat”, But, while the US has surplus of land that it can easily share with, for example, the Moslems that it has displaced in the Middle East with its War Crimes, China has territorial ambitions. While the US has turned every defeat into victory by using Hollywood effectively to erase all humiliation, China nurses grudges.

    OBOR is not just about trade. It is about Empire. It is the opposite, if such is conceivable, of the good Admiral Zheng He of yore:

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