China as a Space Power
After the death of the famous admiral Zheng He, whose fleet had explored the Indian Ocean and even reached East Africa, the move of the empire’s capital to Beijing and the threat from the Mongols led to an inward reorientation of China, which completely withdrew funding for new naval expeditions and repressed contacts with the outside world, even with those visiting China from Java, Siam and other kingdoms.
This decision had a powerful impact in history, because only 55 years after Zheng He’s seventh and final expedition, Bartolomeo Diaz’s compatriots, the Portuguese, sailed past the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean, bypassing Arab and Ottoman-controlled routes through North Africa and the Middle East. Eventually, European powers came to impose their will on China through military and economic force, embodied in the “unequal treaties” that still dominate Chinese perceptions of the “century of humiliation”. I believe that this is one of the explanations for China’s surge in space. From its first steps in this area, with the launch of the Dong Fang Gong 1 satellite onboard a Long March 1 rocket in 1970, the fifth country in the world to launch a satellite, to Yang Liwei’s flight in 2003, by which China became the third country to send people into space through its own strength, the level of resources devoted to space has been steadily increasing. Now, China has developed an ambitious agenda to reach full parity with the US in space and become a global hub for space development that attracts other countries.
The early American and Soviet space investments had a military, strategic and ideological role. By the time China followed in their footsteps, the economic and prestige sides had already become major pillars of state involvement in space.
Beyond the scientific aspect of space exploration and the analysis of space phenomena to better understand the universe and our own planet, the development of space in economic terms has grown strongly in the last decades. From the first networks of telecommunication satellites, today a wide range of space applications, serving billions of beneficiaries, has grown to rely on space-based capabilities in navigation, positioning and timing, communications, and Earth observations. They facilitate international transportation, communications, database synchronisation, financial transaction management, electrical grid management, precision agriculture, weather prediction, disaster management and more.
According to studies by the US company BryceTech, the space economy is worth almost $400 billion and its annual growth is stronger than global economic growth. An OECD study estimates that the space economy could reach $1-1.1 trillion by 2040 and indicates a more optimistic Bank of America report, which suggests values of $2.7 trillion by that time. New technologies and production modes, including digitisation, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and reusable rockets, inaugurate a New Space Age, marked by greater private sector involvement in space and a strong quantitative increase in human presence, especially in the Earth’s orbit.
In addition to the previously mentioned firsts of China, we can also mention the launch of their own space station, Tiangong (Celestial Palace), in 2021, a modular station built on the experience gained with the experimental precursors, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2. China has also been involved in robotic exploration, sending the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) mission to the Moon in 2013, the Yutu-2 mission to the far side of the Moon in 2019 and the Zhurong mission to Mars in 2021. The latter successfully landed on the red planet in May 2021, making China the second country to successfully explore Mars, and continues to transmit data. Moon missions play a strategic role in China’s small but accelerating steps to explore the Moon with a human crew and thus position itself for the competition for lunar resources (or even national spheres of influence on the Moon) predicted by the US multinational Artemis program (having also an unmanned circumnavigation mission to the Moon around this time) and expert reports from entities such as the RAND Corporation and Secure World Foundation.
According to a 2022 study by the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), China has a full range of small, medium and heavy launchers (Long March-2 C, D and F, -3B, -4C, -5, -5B, -6, -7, and -11). Long March-8, first tested in 2020, incorporates a reusable first launch stage like SpaceX’s rockets, but this capability has not yet been demonstrated. Since 2014, the Chinese have relaxed the rules on private sector participation in space, leading to an effervescent private space sector and large private investment in start-up companies (according to BryceTech’s specialty report on start-ups). China had 56 launches in 2022, with 53 successes, out of an overall total of 146 launches (138 successes). The Americans had only 51 launches, with 48 successes. Launches are from four rocket launch sites (the Jiuquan, Taiyuan, Wenchang and Xichang satellite launch centres), but the ability to launch space missions from sea platforms has also been tested. Starting in 2021, construction has begun on a new spaceport near Ningbo, South of Shanghai. The centre is sized for 100 launches per year. The table below shows, from public data collected by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the status of the inventory of satellites orbiting the Earth on 30 April 2022.
China is second only to the US. The gap between the US and China is much narrower than it actually appears when analysing the advanced platforms. The large number of US satellites is due to the fast-paced launches of small Starlink satellites (120 kg each, depending on generation) by SpaceX, which has already reached a constellation of over 2,000 satellites. These launch 60 at a time with a Falcon rocket. Elsewhere in the world, the British company OneWeb has a similar strategy. The revolution in small, high-performance platforms has changed the space field, but many space applications depend on expensive, bulky, high-performance platforms, which are favoured by China’s state-of-the-art approach. Certainly, the US private sector advantage is hard for others to catch up to (launching 500 new satellites in the first 5 months of 2022) , given the revolutionary approaches of SpaceX and Blue Origin, but China has asserted itself in the traditionally statist area and has developed a full range of space capabilities, including telecommunications, navigation, positioning and timing (The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System), Earth observation, including for military reconnaissance, and, according to CSIS, a full range of anti-satellite weapons and counterspace capabilities.
The Strategic Aspect
The Chinese formula of "peaceful rise" and "rejuvenation of the nation" implies taking a leading position in all areas of competition and cooperation between states. The 2016 White Paper on the Space Programme proposes that China should become an "all-round space power", covering virtually the full range of space capabilities, including military, and becoming the third country with such capabilities, and the 2021 White Paper outlines a five-year plan with the goal of becoming a leader in space governance and having a role in making the rules, norms and institutions that will govern human activity in Earth orbit and beyond.
The US has been disturbed by this Chinese surge and opposed China’s inclusion in the International Space Station multi-nation construction project. The Europeans maintain a cooperation with China’s civilian space agencies but, like the Americans, practice limited contact to avoid illicit technology transfers and disapprove of the dual role of China’s space developments because they see a new space race forming between the US, China and Russia. China’s first anti-satellite test took place in 2007, when an inactive weather satellite was destroyed. The Americans blamed China for the amount of waste created by this test, but resumed their own anti-satellite tests in 2008 after a decades-long hiatus, followed by India in 2019 and Russia in 2021 (Russia has a history of developing anti-satellite systems). China has been attributed anti-satellite tests of many types, including jamming, cyber, kinetic, blinding lasers and manoeuvring units.
The competition is not only economic or military, but also in partnerships with third countries. China has launched the Belt and Road Initiative’s Spatial Information Corridor, which involves creating comprehensive space partnerships with BRI countries, involving equipment creation and launch, scientific testing, joint missions, joint infrastructure and trade in space products and services. A study by the Institute for Space Studies in Prague highlighted the system of comprehensive space partnerships created by Russia, by China and by Russia and China acting in partnership, producing an incomplete inventory of deals, which included countries in Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Space systems have become enablers of a wide range of applications in many different domains and affecting billions of people. The space economy is heading towards a trillion-dollar valuation, and leading nations in this competition can expect not only wealth and perhaps even access to new resources, but also strategic influence based on the creation of new critical dependencies. Space has thus become an area of competition between states in terms of prestige, economics, governance and, increasingly, military. At the moment, the competition is ‘peaceful and quiet’ , but there is a fear of an inevitable confrontation between states in space in order to damage each other’s military capabilities, a trend that has been seen in Russia’s threats to the US Starlink system used by the Ukrainian military for ground communications. China has committed significant resources to a high-performance, full-spectrum space agency, and its economic rise in the last few decades has allowed it to accelerate the process of catching up with and even overtaking states like the US and Russia. Through programs such as the Belt and Road Spatial Information Corridor, it is aiming to develop a US-like system of partnerships to establish itself as a systemic leader in space.