You are here


The ‘Celestial Empire’ Looks to Space

Veerle Nouwens and Alexandra Stickings
Commentary, 24 February 2017
Aerospace, China, Pacific
A new Chinese White Paper on the country’s space policy raises a number of questions regarding both its role as a space power and the links between its peaceful exploration and use as a military domain.

China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority, recently published a White Paper on its space policies. It not only lifted a veil of secrecy that shielded Beijing’s space policies, but also outlined the country’s recent achievements and offered a five-year outlook on future activities.

Since its first satellite launch in 1970, China has become a major player in the space domain. However, it was only in 2003 that China became the third country to independently send people into space.

Beijing has placed significant resources into narrowing the capability gap that has separated it from other leading nations in this area. It took only eight years from its entry into manned spaceflight, in 2003, to the launch of the first prototype component of its space station, the Tiangong-1.

And the breathless pace is set to continue: Beijing seeks to have a fully-functioning space station in orbit by 2023.

The ‘China Dream’ – as President Xi Jinping would put it – amounts, however, to more than the combined components of a space station. The White Paper outlines plans for, among others, a soft landing on the far side of the Moon by 2018 and a Mars probe scheduled for around 2020.

And this is not in order to just keep up with other big powers, because it is clear that Beijing understands the importance of space exploration, and the many benefits it provides.

The paper’s focus on science and exploration, rather than national security, forms part and parcel of a China that wishes to project itself as seeking to make its mark on the advancement of mankind; this is, after all, what great powers do.

So, while there are some cursory mentions of defence and security, it is clear that space policy is intended to be seen as non-military. In fact, the deputy chief of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Wu Yanhua, said in a press conference that the role of China in space exploration and utilisation is exclusively peaceful.

The tripling of China’s investment into scientific missions, which will ‘revive state-owned enterprises and inspire the start-up of private ones’, as well as the broader One Belt, One Road project which China is pursuing and the advances in GPS which will produce benefits around the world, support this view.

The domestic application of space technology, however, is not only for peaceful purposes; if only national ambitions were so altruistic. In the same press conference mentioned above, Wu noted that the paper ‘sets out our vision of China as a space power’.

He added that the overall goal is for China to be ‘among the major space powers of the world’ by 2030 which highlights that Beijing is well aware of what many commentators are calling a new ‘space race’.

Although both have smaller budgets, Japan and India have stepped up their space programmes in recent years, and will be watching China’s activities closely.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which promotes the use of space for peaceful purposes and bans the introduction weapons of mass destruction, is unique in its attempt to remove certain military means from an entire domain.

Its focus on exploration for the benefit of all nations supports ideas of openness and collaboration, prohibiting any ‘ownership’ of natural celestial bodies, including the Moon. So navigating around its provisions is a requirement for any space power, and China is no exception in this regard.

Still, as in other fields, the technologies required for space flight and exploration are, in many cases, more closely tied with defence and national security. All satellites have similar basic capabilities, and developments in the civilian sector have naturally boosted efforts in the military one.

Examples abound: the Micius satellite, launched in 2016, became the first satellite to be equipped with quantum capabilities – specifically entangled photons that can be used to transfer data. This could, in theory, create a hack-proof satellite communications network.

Researching this, in itself, does not indicate nefarious motives. Nor should anyone be always alarmed about what China does; in the case of the Micius satellite, Austrian scientists were also involved.

Nevertheless, everyone was aware that China will be a key and perhaps the first beneficiary of any breakthrough from Micius. And, more broadly, developments in the areas of launch platforms, rockets and manoeuvrability could have applications beyond exploration and scientific experiments.

This can simply entail commercial communications satellites providing additional bandwidth for military communications, or a satellite that has capabilities beyond those publicly known or stated.

While China’s civilian space programme is managed by the CNSA, space infrastructure and spacecraft research and development falls under the purview of the General Armament Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

However, unlike in other countries such as the US, China’s space programme is inherently dual-use and would be managed by the military in the event of conflict. Whether in conflict or peacetime, developing protected communications technology can thus be of direct assistance to the PLA and its efforts to possess anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

And, as the latest white paper makes it clear, it is likely that this trend in cutting-edge technology with dual-use applications will continue, and in giant leaps, not steps.

Banner image: China's first heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket launches into space from the country's Wenchang launch centre on Hainan Island. Courtesy of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.


Veerle Nouwens
Senior Research Fellow

Veerle Nouwens is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute,... read more

Alexandra Stickings
Research Fellow, Space Policy and Security
Alexandra Stickings is Research Fellow for Space Policy and Security within the Military Sciences team at RUSI.... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research