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China – A ‘double-faced’ Space Power

With China’s lunar probing Chang’ e-1 satellite, launched on a Long March 3A rocket on 24 October 2007, slated to enter moon’s orbit on 5 November 2007, the focus is gradually shifting to broader questions – is a space doctrine emerging in China? If so, what are its contours? This paper tries to address the questions, against the backdrop of the declared objectives of China’s moon programme, being described by Beijing as ‘starting point for its exploration of outer space’. Considering that ‘national security management ’ has become a complex issue in the present era of growing interdependence among nations, the main thrust given in the study has been on understanding China’s military space programme and analysing its implications for rest of the world.

Setting the tone for the study is the following quote:

“China’s lunar probing is a scientific programme, serving entirely the cause of peaceful use of space. There is no military purpose or any direct clash of interest with other countries” – Hao Xifan, Deputy Director, China Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP) of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (COSTIND)[1]

A look at China’s vision and objectives[2] regarding Space, revealed through Liberation Army Daily, is necessary before proceeding further. In a nutshell, they can be listed as follows:

  1. Protecting China’s space interests, based on the formulations that (a) China’s lunar project ‘is not an attempt to emulate others, but rather an inevitable reflection of the country’s improved over all strength’, (b) ‘whosoever lands in moon first, gets benefits first’ and (c) ‘ In the current international situation, if China does not carry out its lunar probe, it will be difficult for it to escape from the fate of being left behind and beaten again’.

  2. Adhering to the policy of peaceful use of airspace and sharing the achievements of lunar exploration with the whole world, without getting involved in ‘moon race’ with any other country and ‘in any form.”

  3. Protecting China’s legal rights regarding moon, through gaining greater say, with the help of developments and results arising from moon exploration, in the matter of ‘amending’ the 1979 UN Moon Agreement for the purpose of ensuring ‘division of rights’ in moon exploration.

  4. Taking care to give greater economic benefits to the common man in China, out of the lunar exploration project; the first phase of the project to cost only 1 to 1.4 billion Yuan (US$ 133 to 187 million), equaling the ‘cost of building 2 kilometers of subway in Beijing’ only.

  5. Carrying out ‘firsts’ in its lunar programme such as obtaining three-dimensional images of every inch of moon’s surface and measuring the thickness of lunar soil.

  6. Searching for helium-3 and mineral wealth in the moon.

The PRC’s additional observations on China’s space activities are also relevant for the purpose of this study. Notable is the view that such activities would immensely benefit the country in fields of disaster mitigation, telecommunication, satellite education etc, as part of ‘attempts to narrow the gap between the regions within China’ and internationally, serve the cause of ‘peaceful use of outer space for common development’. The country’s ongoing international space cooperation including with the US in the commercial field has been highlighted in China along with assurances on Beijing’s support to enacting an International Space Law.[3] The PRC Vice Minister for Science and Technology has stated (16 October 2007) that his nation “ hopes to take part in the International Space Station”.

It is not surprising that the formulations above do not include references to military aspects of China’s space programme; the same reflects the fact that space activities have now come under civilian control. The agency responsible for the programme, the COSTIND, was ‘civilianised’ as early as March 2002 at the session of the Ninth National People’s Congress, as a ministry level agency under China’s cabinet- the State Council. That was a sequel to formation of another civilian space organization called China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) in 1999, under the control of the State Council, with responsibility for ‘Long March’ series of rockets. As signs further emphasizing the non-military nature of China’s space programme, the Government White Paper on Space for 2006 focussed only on civilian aspects of the programme, with no mention of ‘ national security’. In contrast, the corresponding document for 2000, had listed ‘national security’ as one of the purposes of the country’s space plan.

At this point, it would be appropriate to look into certain key questions concerning China’s military Space programme. What is its nature and how it is enmeshed with the civilian one? How the PRC visualizes its military space role in the future and what are the guiding factors for the same? What are the achievements so far made under the military part of the programme? What will be their implications for rest of the world?

Addressing the questions one by one, the first and foremost that catches attention is the fact that the civilian and military space programmes in China are intertwined. As firm signs in this regard, official defence documents continue to speak about the dual tasks for the country’s space programme, targeting at both ‘civilian and military’ needs (for e.g. China National Defence white paper 2006). People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers, doing space related work, are receiving special praises from the country’s top leaders.[4] That could only mean PLA’s firm involvement in China’s space activities. Also, experts view[5] that the First Academy of PLA’s Second Artillery, the strategic rocket force of China, is responsible for building all carrier rockets for the military and in that process, is having technological ties to all other aspects of space programme. In any case, the organizational structure required to manage the country’s military space programme, still remains unclear.

On the second question concerning China’s military space vision, Beijing has not so far come out with any detailed articulation. Even the defence white papers have not revealed much. Understandably so, as such policies are always being kept secret in China for security reasons. However, several military writings on the subject since 2002, mostly open Chinese language publications, have given some clues to the evolving Chinese thinking.

An analytical work appeared in January 2002 made a demand to the Central government to develop an infrastructure in space and regard developing space territory as part of national strategy.[6] In a major pronouncement subsequently, ‘ control of portions of outer space’ was described as a ‘natural extension’ of other forms of China’s territorial control such as land, sea and air control.[7] Another write-up criticized the US of trying to contain China and asked Beijing to gain capabilities, in counter, to control electromagnetic spectrum as well as establish traditional sovereignty control over land, maritime domain, airspace and space.[8] Taking further the anti-US approach, some other scholars discussed ways for China to jam or destroy the space based ballistic missiles advanced warning systems of the US, thus neutralizing US ability to use data and tracking satellites. “The US is trying to build a strategic external border in space with its ballistic missiles defence plans”, commented other Chinese experts, while emphasizing that ‘whosoever controls space, controls earth’.[9] Other viewpoints wanted a Strategic ballistic missile capability for China as a powerful determinant to prevent the US from attacking the PRC during any crisis such as involving Taiwan and desired China’s neutralization of the US early warning systems, leading to the PRC’s winning the war in space.[10]

A lengthy comment August this year[11] , felt that in recent years, space has become a new battleground and named the US as well as the former Soviet Union for their acquisition of military reconnaissance satellites and anti-satellite capabilities, adding that their ‘model space armies’ are meant to attack ground military targets. A very recent three-part analysis on “Space War’ concept[12], began with a quote from Sun Zu’s “Art of War” that while a “ military General good in defence, hides himself deep in earth, a General strong in attack, emerges from the heights of heaven”, meaning thereby that the Chinese consider attack from space as a superior option. Arguing that with the development of space technology, war theories have undergone a change, leading to “space” becoming an important fighting area, the analysis pointed out to the three essential elements of “space war” – developed space weapons, accomplished ‘space war’ strategy and established objective basis and theoretical foundation for ‘space troops’. As latest, a comment demanded China to ‘develop anti-satellite and space weapons, capable of effectively countering the enemy’s space systems in order to form a reliable and credible defence strategy for China’.[13]

What do these theoretical writings mean? By inference, they are significant for following reasons:

  1. China is on the way to incorporating ‘Space War’ into its military doctrine; it is preparing for a war in five fronts- land, sea, air space, space and informatisation or cyber war front. The Chinese views that ‘space is a natural extension of China’s territorial control’ need to be noted in this context.

  2. Lessons learnt by the Chinese through their study of the importance of ‘space assets’ in wars, as seen at the time of US involvement in the 1991 Gulf war, Kosovo conflict, Afghanistan and Iraq, may have provided a foundation for the PRC’s emerging ‘space doctrine’.

  3. The US is being perceived by China as its principal enemy in space and

  4. Beijing’s counter strategies may in the main, aim at strengthening its ‘space based military assets’, like putting in place military reconnaissance satellites, improving the space imagery and intelligence collection systems pertaining to SIGINT and ELINT as well as satellite jamming technology and deploying space to ground attack weapons.

Taking the next question of Chinese military space technology achievements so far, there is no official data in this regard from China for obvious reasons, but it is generally assessed[14] that China has made progress in following areas-

  1. Launching of military reconnaissance satellites (FSW Series), reportedly totaling around 12 by end 2005.[15] The reported acquisition of advanced radar sensors from Russia is another point. China may have also been successful in building ‘synthetic aperture radar’ satellites. Such improvement, along with Beijing’s strengthening of global positioning system may be of help to China in ensuring the accuracy of its short-range ballistic missiles especially targeting Taiwan.

  2. Development of ‘direct ascent’ weapons, for e.g. the use of ASAT in January 2007, raising questions about China’s intentions in space. Such weapons can target remote sensing intelligence satellites of other nations,

  3. Deployment of high and low energy lasers, for e.g. one such laser reportedly tried to blind a US spy satellite in September 2006,

  4. Carrying out of electronic attacks to neutralize foreign satellites and

  5. Launching of attack by space weapons on ground systems for telemetry etc. The US Department of Defence, in its 2007 report on China’s Military Power, has noted the increase in China’s space capabilities including in the fields of information warfare, computer network operations and electronic warfare.

Addressing the final question of implications arising from China’s space programme, it can be said at the outset that the PRC’s lunar probe, launched shortly after the Party Congress, has boosted the personal image of Hu Jintao, who stands elected as Party chief for a second term. It has also contributed to the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Internationally, the stated wish of China to exploit Helium-3 and mineral resources in the moon, may mean a likely global competition on this account in future. Lastly, Beijing’s desire to gain more say, through the successes in its space programme, in the matter of amending the UN Moon Law, may introduce a competitive element as nations vie with each other to find formulae for enacting a suitable international statute on space.

China’s military space programme, which remains not transparent to the outside world, could have negative implications for its wish to promote space cooperation with other nations. Beijing may allow outside cooperation in the civilian space sector, but without exposing the military side of it, to show that the PRC is a peace-loving nation. In fact, it is already doing so. It is unthinkable that China will allow foreign contact in military space matters, which it considers strategic. On the part of other nations, it is natural for them to develop misgivings on China’s space vision, brought out above, aiming to extend its territorial control to space, making them cautious on space cooperation with China. More importantly, the PRC’s January 2007 ASAT test has given rise to serious doubts globally about Beijing’s intentions in space. Countries that have space satellites have become concerned with China’s demonstration of its capability to destroy satellites through its missile. More so due to the fact that the Chinese military did not hold prior consultations on the test with other important government agencies like the foreign ministry and also security establishment.

A second factor that can stand in the way of China’s international space cooperation initiatives could be the present distrust between nations in and outside the region. Distrust and cooperation naturally do not go together. The US which remains most advanced in building space assets, though may not fear at the moment the progress China is making in the space front, is becoming increasingly alive to Beijing’s gradual expansion of its space capabilities, under a seemingly well-defined strategy. The 2007 report of US Department of Defence Annual Report explains this point. In response, Washington is taking counter-measures under compulsion, for e.g. it is taking steps to build a joint missile defence system with Japan. Regarding India, the trouble spots in New Delhi-Beijing relations still remain. Of late, Beijing has started looking at the growing Indo-US ties with suspicion. New Delhi has expressed concern about China’s anti-satellite capability. The former Chief of Indian Air force ,Mr. S.P.Tyagi has pleaded for setting up a jointly manned aerospace command, apparently in response to China’s military space initiatives. It is probable that India may prefer to adopt a calibrated approach to space cooperation with China, despite the earlier endorsement to the same given by the two sides at the time of President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in November 2006.

Taking the case of Japan, it is revamping the country’s security and foreign policies, in response to China and North Korea factors. Taiwan, on its part, is planning to deploy its own Hsiung Feng missiles to defend itself from Chinese missile attacks, with out being too dependent on the US and is stepping up its efforts to hold a ‘referendum’ on its entry into the UN. It seems that Hu Jintao’s latest offer of peace treaty with Taiwan, is making no headway.

The overall response of China in the described atmosphere has been in the form of taking deterrent measures including in space; under the conditions, Beijing may find it difficult to give a substantive push for space cooperation with countries abroad. The net outcome seems to be that nations may have to face a long road in realizing the much-aspired treaty on peaceful use of outer space.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:


[1]. People’s Daily Online, 21 August 2007 quoting COSTIND website item of 16 August 2007

[2]. Liberation Army Daily (Chinese)’s nine-part series captioned “Why the Chinese people want to reach moon?”, starting from 25 October 2007, based on interviews with three top engineers of China’s Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP) ( Sun Zezhen, Deputy General Designer; Luan Enjie,Chief Commander and Ouyang Ziyuan, Chief Scientist)

[3]. People’s Daily Online, 31 October 2007.

[4]. For e.g. Jiang Zemin at Shenzhou-3 launch in March 2002 and Guo Boxiung, Vice Chairman of Central Military Commission and Party Politburo member along with Cao Gangchuan,Minister of Defence, at Xichang launch site on 24 October 2007.

[5]. “ China as Military Space Competitor”, by James A. Lewis, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, January 2004.

[6]. Prof Wang Xiji of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hong Kong NCNA Bureau dispatch, 15 January 2002.

[7]. Major General Cai Fang Zhen, Space Warfare study,PLA Press,Beijing, 2006

[8]. Gen Zhang Shengxia,commandent,PLA Academy of Military Science

[9]. Huang Zhicheng of Beijing Systems Engineering College, “ Studies in International Technology and Economy”, January 2006.

[10]. China national security strategy in early 21st century,shishi chubanshe,Beijing, 2006

[11]. China Youth Daily, www://, captioned “ Space War is entering war theatre, Space in the Universe will become main battle ground”,

[12]. Liberation Army Daily (Chinese), 11 September 2007

[13]. Bao Shixiu, “China Security”, Vol III, No.1, Winter 2007.

[14]. Ashley Tellis, “Survival”,September 2007,

[15]. Union of Concerned Scientists, AP ,7 December 2005.

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