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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

We Had a Closer Look at China's Space Programme

Article by: Mariam Kvartskhava

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science and written by master’s candidate Mariam Kvartskhava.

Delving into China’s Space Program

According to a famous Chinese legend, it was Wan Hu who dared to dream of reaching the stars, long before the space race began. Wan Hu supposedly lived between 500 and 1,500 years ago. Although he presumably failed, his legends inspired generations in China to explore the universe. With a little motivation by the Cold War,  in 1956 China established its first rocket and missile research institute, beginning a journey in the aerospace industry. Since then, in 1970, it became the fifth country in the world to send a domestic satellite into space using the Long March-1 (长征一号) carrier rocket. A major milestone was again achieved in 2003 as Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to venture into space. Other recent notable successes included the first Mars exploration mission in 2020 and the Shenzhou XV crew confirming 100% self-sustaining oxygen production onboard. After such civilian milestones, China now focuses a greater amount of its space program development on what could be described as dual-use or military means. This concerns in particular C4ISR systems and so-called Counterspace Technologies. We will look into both later.

Perceptions of the Space Program 

Domestically, the Space Program is seen as a way to fulfil the so-called Chinese Dream, which has been a central pillar of the CCP’s efforts to rejuvenate the country and increase China’s international influence. Thus, the program is generally viewed favorably within the country, boosting national pride and technological and scientific capabilities alike. It also serves as a symbol of China’s modernization and global power status.

Internationally, China has collaborated with other countries, in particular France, on space missions, such as with the ‘Space-based multi-band astronomical Variable Objects Monitor’ (SVOM) project. This was in partnership with the French Centre National D’études Spatiales (CNES), establishing a collaboration to develop the SVOM. The satellite aims to detect gamma-ray bursts by observing high-energy electromagnetic radiation in the x-ray and gamma-ray spectra. However, China is making progress with several space-related initiatives that are said to be becoming a growing concern for the United States and its allies. Some view China’s space program as a potential threat, leading to increased competition in the space domain.

Military Aspects: C4ISR Systems and Counterspace Technologies

The use of space for military purposes is becoming increasingly evident and China is not an exemption for prioritizing the development of its space capabilities to serve its national interests. The program supports the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) efforts to become a military that prioritizes information superiority as a means of achieving victory in future conflicts. One example is China’s development of space-based C4ISR systems, which aim to develop power projection and precision-strike capabilities. However, the PLA also recognize the need to deny information to adversaries and is developing counterspace technologies, such as direct-ascent kinetic-kill vehicles and directed energy weapons. One reason cited by Chinese analysts for the development of counter-space technologies is to deny an adversary the use of space. This could lead to a situation where one country has space dominance over another, allowing it to conduct military operations without fear of interference from the other country’s space-based assets. The development of counterspace technologies by China may also have implications for nuclear deterrence. The country may be concerned that countries such as the United States will deploy space-based interceptors, which would negate its nuclear deterrent, thus requiring China to develop countermeasures.

The BeiDou System

The Chinese BeiDou satellite navigation system has been gaining attention and criticism from Western countries, including the United Kingdom. Concerns were raised regarding its potential militarization and implications for global security. While BeiDou provides accurate services similar to GPS, its capabilities and data are openly available to the government, hence posing a threat to other countries. In addition to actual warfighting, Chinese analysts also discuss the use of space power to coerce adversaries. China’s ability to destroy or disable an opponent’s satellites may deter an adversary from conducting counterspace operations against Chinese satellites. Space power can also improve the overall capabilities of a military and serve as a deterrent force not just against the use of specific types of weapons, but also as a general capability that can deter a country from even becoming involved in a conflict.

Collaboration with Russia

China and Russia have established a strategic partnership in space exploration, which has been ongoing for several years. As the Chinese ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui outlined, the cooperation has expanded across various fields, including Earth observation, lunar and deep space exploration, aerospace electronic components, and space debris monitoring. This has yielded fruitful results, and both nations are now entering a new era of comprehensive strategic partnership. In September 2019, China and Russia signed the agreements on cooperative implementation of lunar exploration missions and the establishment of a joint lunar and deep space exploration data center. A collaboration has also been established to construct an international lunar research station. The project is set to be carried out in two stages between 2025 and 2035, culminating in the operationalization of the research station.

Motivations and Challenges

The motivations for collaboration between China and Russia are various. China seeks to collaborate with a country that has significant experience in the field of space exploration and with whom it shares common interests. This partnership also presents an opportunity to challenge the presence of Western democracies in the international arena. Another key driver of collaboration is access to shared data between countries, and the potential for economic benefits through shared expenses. For Russia, the partnership is said to present a lifeline for its space program in the face of heavy sanctions due to its full-scale war against Ukraine started in 2022. Collaborating with China presents an opportunity to access essential components for its space program.

However, there are also potential negative aspects to the collaboration. Russia may become dependent on China, which may not necessarily align with its aims. Nevertheless, given the current geopolitical tensions and the possible ramifications of the Ukrainian conflict, the partnership between China and Russia exhibits a robust relationship, supported by significant investments in their respective space programs, which both nations perceive as integral components of their strategic agendas.

Space Race Dynamics

Since 1956, China has managed to improve its space capabilities on a level that would allow it to become one of the major space powers. China is today the only nation with its own, crewed space station, the Tiangong Space Station (note: all other space-faring nations currently share the ISS). Such improvements not only mean advancement in human space exploration, but also have significant implications in the realm of national defense and security. History remembers the impact of the Sino-Soviet split on China’s Space Program. In a twist of fate, the current reality will likely be that Russia relies on China. 

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