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Building for the Future: China's Progress in Space Technology during the Tenth 5-Year Plan and the U.S. Response

Authored by Mr. Kevin Pollpeter. | March 2008

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SUMMARY

The advance of the Chinese space program has laid a foundation for that country to enter into the top tier of space powers. In recent years, China has made important progress across a broad range of space technologies including launchers, launch schedules, satellites, and human space flight, and has taken a leading role in regional space cooperation.

This monograph examines how the United States should respond to China?s rise as a major space power based on China?s space activities during the period of the Tenth 5-Year Plan (2001-05). It finds that the Chinese space program made impressive gains during the Tenth 5-year Plan, but when compared with the other major space powers, China?s space technology still lags behind.

China?s burgeoning space program provides opportunities for China to use the benefits derived from space power to become a more influential and respected nation. While China does not have an official grand strategy, the Chinese leadership appears to have reached a consensus on a plan which sustains the conditions necessary for economic growth and military modernization in the context of operating in a unipolar world dominated by the United States. This strategy is designed to ultimately usher in a multipolar world in which China is one of several great powers by protecting China?s core national interests against external threats and by shaping the international system in which it operates.

To this end, China?s space program is intended to portray China as a modernizing nation committed to the peaceful use of space while at the same time serving China?s political, economic, and military interests. It contributes to China?s overall influence and provides capabilities that give China more freedom of action and opportunities for international leadership. Militarily, the People?s Liberation Army is undergoing reforms to transform itself into a military that is reliant on information for winning wars. Economically, China?s support for its space program lies in its potential as a driver for economic and technological advancement. Commercially, China is positioning itself as a low cost provider of space technologies and launch services. Commercial services not only increase revenues for the space industry but have also been used to advance China?s diplomatic interests with oil-rich countries. Politically, China?s expanding international cooperation on space activities portends a more influential foreign policy. Domestically, by developing a robust space program and participating in high-profile activities such as human space flight, the Communist Party demonstrates that it is the best provider of material benefits to the Chinese people and the best organization to propel China to its rightful place in world affairs.

China?s rise as a space power will present military, economic, and political challenges to the United States. Uncertainty over China?s pathway to potential major power status, the possibility of a conflict over Taiwan, and the inherent dual-use nature of space technologies means that China?s improving space capabilities could be used against the U.S. military. China?s efforts to develop its space program to transform itself into an economically and technologically powerful country may also come at the expense of U.S. leadership in both absolute and relative terms. China has also been able to use its space program to further its diplomatic objectives and to increase its influence in the developing world and among second-tier space powers.

China?s increasingly capable space program will have a net negative-sum effect on the United States and requires both domestic and international responses by the United States. Domestically, the U.S. Government and industry must improve the health of its space industry through better program management, attracting and retaining a competent workforce, and increasing funding to develop cutting edge technologies. Internationally, the United States must take into account China?s growing presence in world affairs, including space activities.

The rise of China as a space power also raises the question of whether the United States should cooperate with China in space. The difficulty in deciding an appropriate response arises from the inability of both sides to determine whether their relationship will be friendly or hostile. Nevertheless, the United States is presented with four policy options to meet the changing dynamics presented by China?s space program: contain, compete, cooperate, and do nothing.

Containment is the least viable of the four options, and as China becomes more integrated with the world, it will become even less practical.

Competition may also be problematic. U.S.-China relations may be ambivalent, but extensive cooperation does take place in many araeas, and it is not apparent how defining China as a competitor in a space race will further relations. It is also not apparent whether the American public will support a race which will require additional funding with little short-term gain.

Cooperation, on the other hand, has the potential to increase transparency and trust and to lessen competitive aspects that may lead to armed conflict. A policy that treats China as a friend, however, has its own shortcomings. Because China?s strategy is designed to further its own national interests and because its interests are often not aligned with U.S. interests, it is unlikely that assisting China in increasing its space power may eliminate these differences and may, in fact, exacerbate them.

Doing nothing is a safe option that does not risk the transfer of technology or expertise. A policy of inaction does risk ignoring the possible benefits of cooperation.

While the inherent military nature of China?s space program and its lack of transparency preclude most forms of cooperation, the United States can cooperate with China in beneficial ways that do not transfer technology or expertise. These include coordinating scientific research and increasing the safety of human spaceflight by establishing a code of conduct to rescue imperiled astronauts. Consequently, the challenge for the United States is to manage the positive-sum and negative-sum consequences of China?s ascendant space program by improving its space industry, better enabling its military to counter space-based threats, and engaging in cooperative activities that improve science and increase the safety of human space flight.

INTRODUCTION

China?s launch of its first human space flight mission in 2003 has raised concerns about the U.S. ability to maintain its lead in space technology. In recent years, China has made important progress across a broad range of space technologies including launchers, launch schedules, satellites, and human space flight. It established a robust remote sensing network consisting of meteorological, land resources, and oceanography satellites, as well as a satellite navigation and positioning system. China also conducted more launches and more complex launches than at any other time in its history. It has developed a solid-fuel launcher for small and micro-satellites, signed agreements to export satellites, and taken a leading role in regional space cooperation. While China has started from a low base, it has laid a foundation to become a major space power.

The United States, on the other hand, maintains the world?s most advanced and largest space program. Most of the world?s commercial satellites are manufactured by U.S. companies, it conducts the most space exploration activities, and spends as much on national-security space activities as all other countries combined.1 In recent years, the United States announced plans to return humans to the moon. But much of the space program has encountered difficulties, including the fatal break up of the space shuttle Columbia and systemic problems affecting its national security space program. Every next generation U.S. satellite being developed ran over budget and behind schedule and experienced technical difficulties.2 In contrast to the Chinese program, the United States appeared to be losing its edge in space technology.

This monograph examines how the United States should respond to China?s rise as a major space power based on China?s space activities during the period of the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-05). For the purposes of this monograph, space power is defined as ?the pursuit of national objectives through the medium of space and the use of space capabilities.?3 The monograph will first outline China?s space goals and then examine its activities during this period as well as discuss China?s goals for the Eleventh 5-year Plan (2006-10). It will then determine how the space program contributes to China?s goal of becoming a major power through the application of comprehensive national power (CNP) and draw implications for U.S. national security. Finally, it will examine possible U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic responses to China?s space program.

The monograph finds that over the long term, China?s rise as a space power will present military, economic, and political challenges to the United States. Uncertainty over China?s pathway to potential major power status, the possibility of a conflict over Taiwan, and the inherent dual-use nature of space technologies means that China?s improving space capabilities could be used against the U.S. military. China?s efforts to develop its space program to transform itself into an economically and technologically powerful country may also come at the expense of U.S. leadership in both absolute and relative terms. Finally, with the exception of its anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007, China has been able to use its space program to further its diplomatic objectives and to increase its influence in the developing world and among second-tier space powers, which could diminish U.S. power in the space diplomacy arena.

China?s increasingly capable space program will have a net negative-sum effect on the United States and requires both domestic and international responses by the United States. Domestically, the U.S. Government and industry must improve the health of its space industry through better program management, attracting and retaining a competent workforce, and increasing funding to develop cutting edge technologies. Internationally, the United States must take into account China?s growing presence in world affairs, including space activities. While the inherently military nature of China?s space program and its lack of transparency preclude most forms of cooperation, the United States can cooperate with China in beneficial ways that do not transfer technology or expertise. These include coordinating scientific research and increasing the safety of human spaceflight by establishing a code of conduct to rescue imperiled astronauts. Consequently, the challenge for the United States is to manage the positive-sum and negative-sum consequences of China?s ascendant space program by improving its space industry, better enabling its military to counter space-based threats, and engaging in cooperative activities that improve science and increase the safety of human space flight.

CONCLUSION

The rise of a peer competitor in space raises important concerns for the United States. China has made great progress in space technologies in absolute terms, but when compared to the other space powers, it continues to lag behind. Much of the attention on China?s progress in space technologies is due to it starting from a low base. While progress of the more advanced U.S. space program is largely incremental, China?s progress is more rapid due to the addition of new systems.

Nevertheless, China?s progress in the space arena cannot be discounted. China is probably truthful when it says that it is not in a space race. It neither has a sufficient foundation nor the resources to conduct one. Yet, China?s rise as a space power will most likely have a net negative-sum effect for the United States over the long term. It has clearly laid a foundation to become a peer. Moreover, while Chinese technology and operations tempo may not equal those of the major space powers, as China?s space technology improves and becomes more reliable, whether China?s space technology matches the major space powers may become irrelevant. At some point, its technology may simply be good enough to support modern war and be competitive in the marketplace. Taking satellite imagery as an example, one-meter resolution satellite imagery, now widely available commercially, is considered the threshold for widespread military utility. China does not need to develop technologies with capabilities on a par with U.S. satellite capabilities to achieve desired effects.

Because of this, it is doubtful that merely staying one generation ahead of the competition, as advocated by the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, will be enough to maintain effective leadership in this area. Even if U.S. space power does not decline in absolute terms, China?s advance in space technologies will result in relative gains that challenge the U.S. position in space.

While relative decline for the United States in space technologies is unavoidable, it need not lead to a loss of leadership. The rise of a new space power requires two responses from the United States: domestic and international. Domestically, the reliance of the space industry on government clients requires a broad-based response by both the U.S. Government and industry. Without a stable, adequately funded, organized, and staffed space industry, it will be difficult to master the technologies needed to meet the military, commercial, and political challenges of a Chinese space program. This will not only require better program management on the part of industry and government, but will also require both actors to think innovatively about how to attract and maintain a competent workforce.

As China?s space power grows, space diplomacy will also have a role in meeting the challenges of China?s space program. This monograph argues that a program of limited cooperation with China that focuses on tangible benefits for both countries is best suited to meet those challenges. Space activities are multifaceted, and the U.S.-China space relationship need not be solely defined by military considerations. Nevertheless, the inherently military nature of the Chinese space program and its lack of transparency and tendency towards disinformation preclude most forms of cooperation. By focusing cooperation on the safety of space travel and improving science, however, NASA can contribute to its mission while meeting the challenges of a growing space power.

ENDNOTES

1. Loren B. Thompson, Can the Space Sector Meet Military Goals for Space: The Tension Between Transformation and Federal Management Practices, Arlington, VA: Lexington Institute, October 2005, p. 8.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3.Dana J. Johnson, Scott Pace, and C. Bryan Gabbard, Space: Emerging Options for National Power, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1998, p. 8.