Chinese President Xi Jinping has proclaimed that his country will be the world’s largest economy by 2035 and the “supreme geopolitical power” by 2050. Domination in Space is a key strategy in China’s larger goal of becoming a global power. The country plans to be amongst the top technology nations of the world, and increased exploitation of Space is a major step in that direction. This would help in the modernization of its armed forces, apart from bringing tremendous commercial benefits.
China’s Space program was launched during the Mao regime and pursued during the Cold War era, primarily as a ballistic missile development program. The first manned spaceflight was in 2003, four decades behind the US and the (then) Soviet Union. The Space program kicked off in real earnest only about a decade ago, and the launches in the recent past are a clear indicator of the importance it attaches to the utilization of Space. 2018 and 2019 saw the maximum Space launches by China, more than any other country in the world. China launched 39 satellites in 2020, as compared to 44 by the US, which include some from the private Space port of Rocket Lab at Mahia, New Zealand. It plans another 40 plus launches in 2021. China has established itself as a leading power in the highly competitive field of Space, in line with its growing importance in global geopolitics.
China’s “own GPS” — BeiDou Navigational Satellite System (BDS) — started operating early 2000 onwards. The earlier BeiDou-1 and 2 systems had regional reach and offered services limited to the Indo Pacific. BeiDou-3 was launched in 2015, and 2020 saw its full operationalization. BeiDou is a very important component of China’s Space sector. With a constellation of 35 satellites — five in geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), 27 in middle Earth orbit (MEO) and three in inclined geostationary orbit (IGSO), it is capable of providing global coverage for both military and civil use. The BeiDou system offers Positioning, Navigation and Timing(PNT), location and a 120-character SMS communication. Apart from the benefits for commercial use, the system can be of immense value to the armed forces, particularly in remote areas where terrestrial networks are not available or are likely to be disrupted.
More than half of the countries in the world are already using BeiDou today. It is being offered free to all countries that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Russia is collaborating with China using its GLONASS in combination with BeiDou to create an even more potent PNT system, which would be able to compete with GPS or GPS+ Galileo (European), both in reach and accuracy, with the added advantage of a messaging system provided by BeiDou’s five GEO satellites. Currently, China exports weapons worth billions of dollars to over 50 countries. By providing access to this system, it would be able to further push up its sales of high precision weapons.
To take the Space development initiative forward, particularly in the military domain, China created the PLASSF Space Systems Department towards the end of 2015, combining all entities involved in Space, cyber and electronic warfare under a unified command. PLASSF is tasked to develop China’s Space infrastructure and integrate it closely with full spectrum military operations of the PLA, to include Command and Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). Headed by a Lt Gen of the PLA and having a political commissar of an equivalent rank, it manages the organizational apparatus and allocates the R&D budget to various components of the Space program.
China has undertaken the development of Space-based early warning and surveillance systems which include a plethora of Electro Optical (EO) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors. These are supported by a network of ground and sea-based receiving stations and a near real-time data communication network. It is believed that Russia has assisted China in the development of the early warning system.
China lays emphasis on developing both hard and soft kill systems to limit the Space capabilities of adversaries. These range from electronic jamming and cyberattacks to high energy lasers and Anti Satellite (ASAT) missiles. China successfully demonstrated its ASAT capability as far back as 2007. The counter Space weapons could be ground, air or in-orbit launched systems. Because of the secrecy surrounding China’s military program, the possibility of other counter Space systems being developed covertly cannot be discounted.
China’s Space program is supported by adequate launch infrastructure in the form of Space ports and launch vehicles. Currently, China has four Space launch centers:
The heavy lift capability of Space launch vehicles has also increased progressively to 4.5 tons, to keep pace with China’s rapidly accelerating Space program. This is adequate for positioning payloads in sun-synchronous orbit. Though essentially a state-run program, in this endeavor, it has recently received support from private enterprise as well.
China’s Mars exploration began in earnest with the signing of a cooperation agreement with Russia in 2007. Yinghuo-1 orbiter, built as part of this agreement, was launched from a Russian cosmodrone and remained in orbit for a year, carrying out scientific experiments with on board equipment to investigate the plasma and magnetic field surrounding the planet. Tianwen-1, China’s latest Mars probe, consisting of an orbiter, lander and a rover, was launched in Jul 2020. It is due to enter Mar’s orbit in Feb this year and then would take two to three months looking for and selecting a landing site, due in May. The technological objectives of the mission include exploration of Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and Martian atmosphere. China is thus set to challenge the US supremacy in this field. China’s lunar exploration endeavors commenced over a decade and a half ago in 2004. After some preliminary exploratory missions, it has reached an advanced stage in the last two years. In January 2019 China achieved a difficult technological feat in its lunar exploration. A lunar rover, Chang-4, landed on the far side of the moon, where there was lack of Radio Frequencies. However, with the help of a satellite which was placed in orbit around the moon earlier, it was able to relay data back to Earth. Chang-5 rover was China’s most recent lunar mission completed in Nov-Dec 2020. It was able to collect and bring back a small quantity of lunar rock samples. Before this only the US and Russia brought back samples from the moon over four decades ago.
China had launched Tiangong-1 (in 2011), a prototype lab station and Tiangong-2 station (in 2016). Docking was carried out with these Space stations with Shenzhou spacecraft, modelled on the Russian Soyuz. Tiangong -2 was occupied for close to a month by two of the three members of Shenzhou-11 who had docked with it .Having gained experience from these two stations, China now plans to launch a permanent modular third-generation Space station in the first half of 2021, to be placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The station should be fully operational by next year. This is in response to being excluded, largely at the behest of the US, from the International Space Station (ISS) project — built by five collaborating Space agencies. Though it will be roughly one fifth the size of the ISS, it is being designed to accommodate astronauts for about six months. In Jun 2019, China announced nine international projects for its planned Space station to conduct Space experiments.
China’s Space program has been a valuable pillar of its global foreign policy outreach. The country has been hugely dependant on erstwhile USSR and now Russia for the development of its Space program. The USSR transferred Space technology to PRC during the period of Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s. Chinese scientists were trained by them and Chinese rocket prototypes were modelled on Soviet rockets. Consequent to the ideological rift between the two nations in 1960, all cooperation provided by USSR was abruptly withdrawn. With improved relations a decade and a half later, the cooperation resumed in 1985 and continues.
As part of its foreign policy initiative, China has forged numerous international alliances for cooperation in Space exploration. Apart from Russia, it has embarked on several collaborative projects with Germany, France, Italy, and organizations such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Pakistan, an all weather ally of China, recently signed an agreement for broad ranging Space cooperation. China had helped Pakistan earlier with the launch of its first two satellites in 2018. The latter’s military nuclear missile program is completely based on Chinese support. Pakistan would also have BeiDou as an effective alternate to the GPS for its aviation and military use, in case of decline in its relationship with the US.
US-China collaboration in Space has been very limited. In 2011, the US Congress banned NASA from having any interaction with China National Space Administration (CNSA), or any Chinese owned Space company, except where it did not result in transfer of technology and did not impact national security or human rights violation. This was permitted only after specific congressional approval. One such instance was in 2019, when NASA collaborated with China to monitor the lunar lander and rover mission on the far side of the moon using NASA‘s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This China exclusion policy has resulted in criticism from within its own scientific community and US allies such as the Great Britain. A possible change in this policy is foreseen, with advisors of the incoming Biden administration recommending collaboration with China in the interests of peace.
Space Silk Road refers to the creation of the complete range of Space facilities to include satellites, launch systems, ground-based infrastructure, PNT system, global communication system and related industries and services. With the phenomenal increase in aviation, overland traffic and shipping over the years, a need was felt to have a 24X7 real-time tracking and monitoring system with a fully integrated fool proof communication system to ensure safety of all traffic, while permitting optimum utilization of available air, land and maritime corridors. China is using its BeiDou navigation system, satellite communications and associated ground infrastructure as the backbone to construct this Space Silk Road. For communications, it has planned a constellation of 320 LEO satellites named Hongyan, nine of which have been launched since 2018. Once this broadband network is operational, all mobile communications would be hooked to it directly, making all terrestrial communications redundant. When operational, it will be able to provide mobile connectivity to 2 million users, satellite broadband to 200,000 and IoT coverage to 10 million. In addition, Space Silk Road would provide assistance in weather forecasting and disaster early warning. Countries which are part of the BRI stand to be the beneficiaries of this system, which would consequently increase their dependence on China’s science, technology and trade.
US and Russia (formerly Soviet Union) have dominated Space exploration for over five decades, with China remaining a distant third. The last two decades have seen China joining the Space race and catching up with the two. This has been due to the single-minded focus of the government and adequate funding for the Space program even at the expense of other welfare activities. Though the Chinese leadership insists that their Space program is not in competition with any other nation and is instead driven by their own scientific and technological goals, it is viewed as a challenge, particularly by NASA. US analysts are of the opinion that China is stealing technology and utilizing opportunities provided by the open US educational and research organizations to advance its ambitious Space program, resulting in political and economic gains and strengthening of its military, to the detriment of the US security and a possible threat to world peace.