top of page

China Challenges US In Space

As appeared in

A successful Chinese destruction of one of its old and disused weather satellites orbiting 537 miles up in space by firing a ground-based missile at it on January 11,2007, is significant for four reasons. Firstly, it underlines once again its determination to project Chinese military capabilities on land, in the sea, in air and in space unmindful of the concerns which it might cause in the minds of the international community. Secondly, it calls into question the sincerity of China’s projection of itself as a country with no ulterior motives in undertaking a rapid and expensive modernisation of its armed forces. It casts doubts once again on the benign intentions of China’s military modernisation programme. Thirdly, it highlights its determination to achieve not only economic, but also military parity with the US. Fourthly, it underlines its ability to conceal vital elements of its military modernisation programme away from the eyes and ears of the Western intelligence agencies.

2. The Chinese test, which was first reported online by the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology, has come in the wake of US opposition to a Chinese proposal for a United Nations sponsored International Space Conference to prevent an arms race in space. The Bush administration has been saying that there is no need for such a conference since, according to it, there is no possibility of an arms race in space. At the same time, in a National Space Policy released last year, the US strongly asserted an American right to defend itself in space against any actions it considered hostile.

3. If the US has a right to defend itself in space, so too China. Even while denying the US a hegemony in space, China continues to be open to internationally agreed measures to control, if not eliminate, an arms race in space. That is the message that Beijing has sought to convey by demonstrating its military capability in space.

4. The “Washington Post” reported as follows on January 18,2007: “The U.S. military is especially dependent on space-based satellites for navigation, communications and missile guidance, while the American economy could also be broadly damaged by any disruptions of communications, weather and other satellites. Some in the administration believe this has made the nation especially vulnerable to attack, and it has led them to propose efforts to develop ways to defend satellites in space. The issue of possible hostilities in space became more real in August when National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald M. Kerr told reporters that a U.S. satellite had recently been “painted,” or illuminated,by a ground-based laser in China. The United States did not make any formal protest of that event, but it did today regarding the latest Chinese action.”

5. Michael Krepon, President emeritus of the Henry L.Stimson Center, Washington DC, has been quoted as saying: “The Chinese test blows a hole through the Bush administration reasoning behind not talking to anybody about space arms control — that there is no space arms race. It looks like there is one at this point.”

6. Reproduced below is an article on China’s Space Programme written by me on January 11,2001.

China’s Space Programme

by B.Raman

China announced on January 10,2001, that it had successfully launched its second unmanned spacecraft, “Shenzhou II”, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center, in north-west China. It was from the same centre that China launched its first satellite on April 24, 1970; its first long-distance rocket carrier, on May 18, 1980; and its first unmanned spacecraft “Shenzhou I”, on November 20, 1999.

The Beijing announcement said that “Shenzhou II”, though carrying no astronaut, used the technology and equipment designed for manned space shuttles, such as the escape system on its top allowing astronauts to use it under emergent circumstances and that a number of special “passengers” were riding the space vehicle, including animals and microbial cells provided by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. These “passengers”, the announcement said, were expected to be subjected to a series of experiments in space, which would be the first kind of such tests carried out by Chinese scientists.

The announcement also claimed that as it was the first time that a launching was carried out in deep winter, experts had conducted three low- temperature tests before the launching of “Shenzhou II” and that the center had developed a special temperature-controlling system for the propellant.

Earlier, on November 22,2000, coinciding with the first anniversary of the launching of “Shenzhou I”, the Chinese Government had issued a White Paper on China’s space programme during the new millennium, which explained the objectives of the programme as follows:

  1. To explore outer space, and learn more about the cosmos and the earth;

  2. To utilize outer space for peaceful purposes; and

  3. To meet the growing demands of economic construction, national security, science and technology development and social progress, protect China’s national interests and build up the comprehensive national strength. The White Paper added that the following principles would govern China’s space programme:

  4. Long-term, stable and sustainable development and making the development of space activities cater to and serve the state’s comprehensive development strategy.

  5. Independence, self-reliance and self-renovation and active promotion of international exchanges and cooperation.

  6. Selecting a limited number of targets and making breakthroughs in key areas according to the national situation and strength.

  7. A more economical and efficient development road for its space activities so as to achieve the integration of technological advance and economic rationality.

  8. Integrated planning, combination of long-term and short-term development, combination of spacecraft and ground equipment, and coordinated development. Tracing the history of China’s space programme since its birth in 1956, the White Paper said: “Now, China ranks among the most advanced countries in the world in many important technological fields, such as satellite recovery, multi-satellite launch with a single rocket, rockets with cryogenic fuel, strap-on rockets, launch of geo-stationary satellites and TT&C (Telemetry Tracking & Command ). Significant achievements have also been gained in the development and application of remote- sensing satellites and telecommunications satellites, and in manned spacecraft testing and space micro-gravity experiments.”

According to the White Paper, China’s first man-made satellite, the “Dongfanghong-I” was successfully developed and launched on April 24, 1970, making China the fifth country in the world with such capability. By October 2000, China had developed and launched 47 satellites of various types, with a flight success rate of over 90%. Altogether, four satellite series have been initially developed in China, namely, recoverable remote-sensing satellites, “DFH (Dongfanghong)” telecommunications satellites, “FY (Fengyun)” meteorological satellites and “SJ (Shijian)” scientific research and technological experiment satellites. It added that the “ZY (Ziyuan)” earth resource satellite series would come into being soon.

It claimed that China was the third country in the world to have mastered the technology of satellite recovery, with the success rate reaching the advanced international level, and the fifth country capable of developing and launching geo-stationary telecommunications satellites independently. It also claimed that the major technological index of China’s meteorological and earth resource satellites had reached the international level of the early 1990s and that the six telecommunications, earth resources and meteorological satellites developed and launched by China in the past few years were in stable operation, and have generated remarkable social and economic returns.

The White Paper contended that China had independently developed the “Long-March” rocket group, containing 12 types of launching vehicles capable of launching satellites to near-earth, geo-stationary and sun-synchronous orbits. The largest launching capacity of the “Long-March” rockets had reached 9,200 kg for near-earth orbit, and 5,100 kg for geo-stationary transfer orbit, able to basically meet the demands of customers of all kinds.

Since 1985, when the Chinese Government announced putting the “Long- March” rockets into the international commercial launching market, China has launched 27 foreign-made satellites into space, thus acquiring a share of the international commercial launching market. Up to now, according to the White Paper, the “Long-March” rockets have accomplished 63 launches, and made 21 consecutive successful flights from October 1996 to October 2000.

China has set up three launching sites – in Jiuquan, Xichang and Taiyuan – which have successfully accomplished various kinds of test flights of launching vehicles and launches of a variety of satellites and experimental spacecraft. The White Paper further claimed that China’s spacecraft launching sites were capable of making both domestic satellite launches and international commercial launches, and carrying out international space cooperation in other fields and that China has established an integrated TT&C network comprising TT&C ground stations and ships, which has successfully accomplished TT&C missions for near-earth orbit and geo-stationary orbit satellites, and experimental spacecraft. This network has acquired the capability of sharing TT&C resources with international networks, and its technology has reached the international advanced level.

Tracing the evolution of China’s manned spaceflight program since it was launched in 1992, the White Paper claimed that China has developed a manned spacecraft and a high-reliability launching vehicle, carried out engineering studies in aerospace medicine and aerospace life science, selected reserve astronauts and developed equipment for aerospace remote-sensing and aerospace scientific experiments.

The White Paper gave the following details of space applications in China:

1. Satellite Remote-Sensing: China began to use domestic and foreign remote-sensing satellites in the early 1970s, and eventually carried out studies, development and promotion of satellite remote-sensing application technology, which has been widely applied in meteorology, mining, surveying, agriculture, forestry, water conservancy, oceanography, seismology and urban planning. To date, China has established the National Remote- Sensing Center, the National Satellite Meteorology Center, the China Resources Satellite Application Center, the Satellite Oceanic Application Center and the China Remote-Sensing Satellite Ground Station, as well as satellite remote-sensing application institutes under related ministries of the State Council, some provinces and municipalities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. These institutions have made use of both domestic and foreign remote-sensing satellites to carry out application studies in weather forecasting, territorial survey, agricultural output assessment, forest survey, natural disaster monitoring, maritime forecasting, urban planning and mapping. The regular operation of the meteorological satellite ground application system, in particular, has greatly improved the accuracy of forecasting disastrous weather and significantly reduced the economic losses of the state and people from such weather.

2. Satellite Telecommunications: In the mid-1980s, China began to utilize domestic and foreign telecommunications satellites, and developed related technology to meet the increasing demands of the development of telecommunications, broadcasting and education. In the field of fixed telecom service, China has built scores of large and medium-sized satellite telecom earth stations, with more than 27,000 international satellite telephone channels connected to more than 180 countries and regions worldwide. The establishment of the domestic satellite public communication network, with more than 70,000 satellite telephone channels, has initially solved the problem of communication in remote areas. The VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) communication service has developed very rapidly in recent years. There are now in the country 30 domestic VSAT communication service providers and 15, 000 small station users, including over 6,300 two-way users. More than 80 specialized communication networks for dozens of departments like finance, meteorology transportation, oil, water resources, civil aviation, power, public health and the media have been built, with over 10,000 VSAT. A satellite TV broadcasting system covering the whole world and a satellite TV education system covering the whole country have been established. China started to use satellites for TV broadcasting in 1985, and has formed a satellite transmission network with 33 telecommunications satellite transponders responsible for transmitting 47 TV programs and educational TV programs of CCTV (China Central Television) and local TV stations throughout the country, 32 programs of the Central Broadcasting Station at home and abroad, and about 40 local broadcasting programs. Ever since the opening of satellite education TV broadcasting programs over a dozen years ago, more than 30 million people have got college or technical secondary school education and training through it. China has also set up a satellite live broadcasting experimental platform to transmit CCTV and local satellite TV programs by digital compression to the vast rural areas which wireless TV broadcasting cannot cover. In this way, China’s TV broadcasting coverage has been greatly increased. China has about 189,000 satellite TV broadcasting receiving stations. The China broad-band multi-media education satellite transmission network has also been established on the satellite live broadcasting experimental platform to provide comprehensive remote education and information technology services.

3. Satellite Navigation: In the early 1980s, China began to utilize other countries’ navigation satellites and develop the application technology of satellite navigation and positioning, which is now widely used in many fields including land survey, ship navigation, aircraft navigation, earthquake monitoring, geological calamity monitoring, forest fire prevention and control, and urban traffic control. After joining the COSPAS-SARSAT in 1992, China established the Chinese Mission Control Center, thus greatly improving the capability of the emergency alarm service for ships, aircraft and vehicles.

4. Space Science: China started to explore the upper atmosphere using rockets and balloons in the early 1960s. In the early 1970s, China began to utilize the scientific exploration and technological testing satellites of the “SJ” group in a series of space explorations and studies, and acquired a large amount of valuable data about the space environment. Research on space weather forecasting and related international cooperation have also been carried out in recent years. In the late 1980s, recoverable remote-sensing satellites were employed for various kinds of aerospace scientific experiments, and have yielded satisfactory achievements in crystal and protein growth, cell cultivation and crop breeding. The establishment of advanced and open state-level laboratories specializing in space physics, micro-gravity and space life science, and the founding of the Space Payload Application Center provide the country with the basic ability to support aerospace scientific experiments. The “SJ” group has been used in recent years to detect charged particles in terrestrial space and their effects. In addition, the first micro-gravity space experiment on double-layer fluid was accomplished, in which remote operation of space experiments was realized.

The White Paper said that China was drafting a space development strategy and plans oriented to the 21st century, with the following short-term development targets (for the next decade):

  1. To build up an earth observation system for long-term stable operation. The meteorological satellites, resource satellites, oceanic satellites and disaster monitoring satellites can develop into an earth observation system for long-term stable operation to conduct stereoscopic observation and dynamic monitoring of the land, atmosphere, and oceanic environments of the country, the peripheral regions and even the whole globe;

  2. To set up an independently operated satellite broadcasting and telecommunications system. Positive support will be given to the development of commercial broadcasting and telecommunications satellites such as geo-stationary telecom satellites and TV live broadcasting satellites with long operating life, high reliability and large capacity, so as to form China’s satellite telecom industry;

  3. To establish an independent satellite navigation and positioning system. This will be achieved by setting up a navigation and positioning satellite group step by step and developing a relevant application system, which will eventually bring into being China’s satellite navigation and positioning industry;

  4. To upgrade the overall level and capacity of China’s launch vehicles. This will be achieved by improving the performance and reliability of the “Long-March” group, developing the next generation of launch vehicles with non-toxic, non-polluting, high- performance and low-cost qualities, forming a new group of launch vehicles and strengthening the capability of providing international commercial launching services;

  5. To realize manned spaceflight and establish an initially complete R&D and testing system for manned space projects;

  6. To establish a coordinated and complete national satellite remote-sensing application system by building various related ground application systems through overall planning, setting up a remote-sensing data receiving, processing and distributing system covering the whole country for data sharing, and forming a fairly complete application system in major application fields of satellite remote-sensing; and

  7. To develop space science and explore outer space by developing a scientific research and technological experiment satellite group of the next generation, strengthening studies of space micro-gravity, space material science, space life science, space environment and space astronomy, and carrying out pre-study for outer space exploration centering on the exploration of the moon.

The long-term development targets (for the next 20 years or more) were laid down as follows:

  1. To achieve industrialization and marketization of space technology and space applications. The exploration and utilization of space resources shall meet a wide range of demands of economic construction, state security, science and technology development and social progress, and contribute to the strengthening of the comprehensive national strength;

  2. To establish a multi-function and multi-orbit space infrastructure composed of various satellite systems and set up a satellite ground application system that harmonizes spacecraft and ground equipment to form an integrated ground-space network system in full, constant and long-term operation in accordance with the overall planning of the state;

  3. To establish China’s own manned spaceflight system and carry out manned spaceflight scientific research and technological experiments on a certain scale; and

  4. To obtain a more important place in the world in the field of space science with more achievements and carry out explorations and studies of outer space. The White Paper said that China attached great importance to space cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1992, China, Thailand, Pakistan and some other countries jointly sponsored the “Asian-Pacific Multilateral Space Technology Cooperation Symposium.” Thanks to the impetus of such regional cooperation, the governments of China, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan and Thailand signed the “Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Small Multi-Mission Satellite and Related Activities” in Thailand in April, 1998. Besides the signatory countries, other countries in the Asia-Pacific region may also join the cooperative project, which has helped to enhance the progress of space technology and space application in the Asia- Pacific region.

It said that after the Chinese Government declared in 1985 that China’s “Long March” launching vehicles would serve the international market and provide international satellite launching service, up to October 2000, China had successfully launched 27 foreign-made satellites for users in Pakistan, Australia, Sweden, the United States, the Philippines, as well as domestic users.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail:

4 views0 comments


bottom of page