China's high-stakes race for space's strategic ground

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2011, 12:00am


With the final landing of the space shuttle Atlantis, the US has effectively lost its independent capacity to launch human space flights until it puts other systems in place. The landing will stall America's advance along space's strategic edge, and give second- and third-tier space nations a chance to narrow the technological gaps.

One of the most ambitious countries in the emerging global space race is China, which views space exploration not only as the cornerstone of its national efforts in scientific and technological innovation, but also as vital to its political, economic and security interests.

With its investment in space exceeding an estimated US$2 billion last year, China became the second-biggest spender on space in Asia after Japan (US$3.8 billion). In 2010, China conducted as many launches as the US (15), second only to Russia (31).

While many aspects of China's vast space programmes are classified, Beijing has publicised its technical prowess and space ambitions in areas such as launch vehicles, launch schedules, satellites, human space flight, as well as command and control, anti-satellite technology, and sensor abilities.

In 2003, China became the third nation to complete a successful manned space mission by launching the Shenzhou V carried by the Long March 2F rocket. Since then, China has carried out two additional manned missions. By 2025, China envisions the completion of a 60-tonne orbital space station.

China's evolving abilities in space have benefited from the increasing participation of its aerospace industry in the global commercial aerospace market. Since the late 1990s, Beijing has gradually introduced elements of competition, autonomy, entrepreneurship and decentralisation into its defence-industry base.

The market gives incentives for Chinese aerospace companies not only to increase their revenues, but more importantly to close the technological gaps through global commercial technology transfer and services.

In this regard, China is believed to have embarked on a full-scale development programme on new heavy-lift Long March rockets - the LM-5 series. The LM-5 is expected to be launched in 2014 from the newly built Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in Hainan .

Space launch vehicles and systems are dual-use strategic assets, valuable to both civilian and military communities. In China, there is no clear separation between its civil and military space programmes and industries.

The People's Liberation Army's General Armaments Department under the Central Military Commission manages the launch, tracking, and control of all space missions, and civilian and military satellites. It also co-ordinates the technical aspects of China's space activities.

With the pace, scope, and dual dimension of China's space programmes, the key question is whether other countries will also accelerate their efforts to develop similar space capabilities.

According to a Euroconsult study, more than 50 countries are investing in domestic space programmes. Last year, governments around the world spent a record combined US$71.5 billion on space, and this figure is projected to remain at around US$70 billion until 2015.

As more nations join the space club, there is growing awareness that space is vital to national security, because space assets may be increasingly vulnerable to threats that can deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt or destroy these assets.

Since the great cold war space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, aerospace has been seen as the 'international geostrategic high ground'. That ground will become increasingly competitive and contested with the globalisation of space, led today by countries like China.

Michael Raska is a PhD candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore