Commentators often refer to China as an “emerging space power.” This characterization understates China’s current space capabilities. China has in many respects already reached the top tier of spacefaring nations—with profound implications not only for America’s own interests in space, but also for the much-touted “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region.
While initially starting well behind the two original space powers, China has slowly but steadily added accomplishments to its space portfolio. In 2011, it conducted nineteen space launches—twelve less than Russia that year but one more than the United States. It has manufactured satellites for domestic use and marketed satellites for export, with customers in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. Chinese spacecraft already have orbited the moon, and Beijing has signaled its intention to land an unmanned probe and possibly even astronauts on the lunar surface.
In late June, China’s space endeavors captured headlines across the world when three Chinese astronauts manually docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module. In doing so, China became only the third nation besides the United States and Russia to accomplish this complex maneuver. It also demonstrated a capability it will need to one day assemble and operate a permanently manned space station.
Western experts note that a fundamental purpose of the Chinese space program is to bolster the image of China—and the ruling Chinese Communist Party—both at home and abroad. It also aims to spur the development of Chinese science and technology.
Chinese activities in space also have an undeniable military purpose. By their very nature, certain space-related capabilities—launch, earth observation, long-distance communications, precision navigation—can serve both civil and military objectives. In China’s case, the overlap is substantial. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in fact directs major elements of the nation’s space program, including manned spaceflight.
As Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation has noted, Chinese military writings emphasize the roles space systems can play in supporting air, land and sea operations. These include finding and attacking American forces operating in the Asia-Pacific region. With this end clearly in mind, the PLA is expanding its current constellations of reconnaissance, navigation, meteorological and communications satellites.
Likewise, Chinese strategists understand the growing extent to which the United States and its allies depend upon space-related capabilities in conducting their own military operations. Accordingly, China appears intent on developing capabilities to disrupt an adversary’s ability to use space systems, either by attacking satellites directly or by interfering with the ground stations and the communications nodes essential to satellite operations.
For example, in 2007, China conducted a test of a direct-ascent antisatellite interceptor that literally blasted an aging Chinese weather satellite into thousands of metal shards. In the process, it created a cloud of debris that will pose a serious hazard to satellites flying in low-earth orbit for many years to come.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military stated that Chinese counter-space capabilities also include “jamming, laser, microwave, and cyber weapons” and that “China has also conducted increasingly complex close proximity operations between satellites while offering little in the way of transparency or explanation.”