Wednesday’s Book Review: “China’s Evolving Space Capabilities”

chinaChina’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests. By Mark A. Stokes and Dean Cheng. Washington, DC: Project 2049 Institute, April 26, 2012. 85 pages. Available on-line at

I wanted to review this document because of its reflection of deep historical and political knowledge of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its efforts to become a top-rank space power. Authors Stokes and Cheng are China-watchers with strong connections both to the policy community and the scholarly world. They detail in this report the current state of China’s efforts in space, as well as its aspirations for the foreseeable future.

Stokes and Cheng describe how China has engaged in the development of space technologies to further geopolitical, scientific, technological, and economic goals. This has led to decisions to engaged with Russia and other nations in cooperative ventures, as well as go it alone in some purely military arenas. While there is openness to cooperation in space with the United States, the authors find that Chinese leaders are wary of the mistrust present in U.S.-China relations since the Hughes satellite scandal of the 1990s.

The authors note that China’s successes in space have been significant in the twenty-first century. They have developed a human spaceflight capability, achieved success with human-tended space platforms, developed reliable space launch vehicles, and operated a plethora of satellites. China’s investment in these technologies has pushed it to the forefront of high technology economics. At the same time, these capabilities have expanded China’s research in the military realm and made a more significant force to be reckoned with than ever before.

The intentions of China in space remain unclear, according to Stokes and Cheng. Despite three white papers—2000, 2006, and 2011—there are no easy answers to China’s space ambitions. This report discusses the fragmented nature of the leadership of China’s space efforts. There is no clear-cut line of authority for civilian versus military capabilities, and there is not a reasonable way for assuring the appropriate resources are turned toward the most useful endeavors, indeed there is little consensus on what are the most useful endeavors. The authors try to explain what organizations are involved in spaceflight, what prerogatives they hold, and how they cooperate, or not, in their efforts.

For readers of this journal, perhaps the most important question is what China’s Moon ambitions are. Again, the answer is unclear. With the success of the Shenzhou human spaceflight program and the space station, efforts to reach the Moon have been underway for some time. As easly as 1995 China’s senior leadership approved lunar exploration as part of the 863 Program. At least one stated motivation was to explore prospects for mining lunar Helium-3 as a replacement for fossil fuels. Detailed planning did not begin until 1998, however; those early ambitions were reflected in the November 2000 white paper on space activities. In 2004 the Chinese Central Committee formed a Lunar Orbit Exploration Project. This coordinating body pursued a three phased effort:

  1. A demonstration of China’s technological prowess using lunar orbiters Chang’e-1 in 2007 and Chang’e-2 in 2010. Among other mission requirements these spacecraft were to map the Moon in high resolution and search for helium-3.
  2. As yet undemonstrated, in Phase II China plans to undertake docking, controlling, and mapping missions, as well as two remote controlled rovers to conduct lunar surface investigations.
  3. A third phase is intended to involve the launch of Chang’e-5 on a LM-5E heavy launch vehicle for collecting lunar samples.

While much is this is not firm, and a timetable has not been officially announced, China may attempt a human lunar landing sometime after 2025.

In addition, China has been active in national security space development, pursuing survivable satellite architectures, reconnaissance capabilities, and ballistic missile technologies.

In addition, the authors make much of the pursuit of space technology as an important driver for Chinese economic growth. China views technology spin-offs as critical to its future and exports of its space hardware and expertize as a competitive advantages going forward. The authors also note that China’s interaction with other spacefaring nations furthers agenda of greater national respect. Stokes and Cheng conclude, “Space is a significant metric of national power, and the United States remains a world leader within this domain. However, China is emerging as a relative competitor in selected areas of space technology. While collaboration in space may benefit both the United States and China, Beijing’s lack of transparency over military budgets, and potential risks associated with the military applications of space technology, remain major causes for concern” (p. 50).

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