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.”
In fact, China’s intentions in space, as with many aspects of its military modernization and cyber programs, are opaque. Washington has called for enhanced dialogue with Beijing on strategic issues and for military-to-military exchanges to help reduce uncertainty and potential misunderstandings. China has repeatedly blocked such efforts, usually in response to the announcement of U.S. military sales to Taiwan. In this respect, the recent visits by the Chinese defense minister to the United States and the commander of U.S. Pacific Command to China are encouraging developments.
Official discussions between U.S. and Chinese space experts are even more problematic and politically charged. In 2006, NASA administrator Michael Griffin made a “get-acquainted” visit to China—the first-ever by the head of the U.S. space agency. Four years later, his successor, Charles Bolden , followed suit.
However, in May of last year, the House inserted a provision into the NASA appropriations bill that prohibited it and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any funds “to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.” It also blocked the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or used by NASA.
This legislative action reportedly reflected deeply held concerns about protecting American intellectual property and sensitive technologies in the face of aggressive Chinese attempts to glean scientific and technical information from abroad. However, in the process, it foreclosed one possible avenue for gaining greater insight into China’s intentions with respect to space.
It’s worth recalling that even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and its archrival at the time—the Soviet Union—embarked upon cooperative efforts in space, most famously with the joint Apollo-Soyuz docking mission in 1975.
Today, despite the sometimes sharp policy disagreements at the political level, the United States and Russia work together closely on the International Space Station as well as in the commercial space sector. For example, the first stage of one of the rockets that currently lofts U.S. national-security satellites into orbit—United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V booster —uses the powerful RD-180 rocket engine, which is made in Russia.
The United States and Russia have succeeded over the years in collaborating on space projects because both countries have something significant to gain and, equally importantly, something significant to contribute. At the moment, potential areas of cooperation with China appear to be limited, particularly since Chinese space science currently takes a backseat to military programs. That, however, may be changing with plans for several ambitious science missions reportedly now in the works.
As the United States pursues its stated policy of devoting greater attention to the Asia-Pacific region and encouraging an increasingly powerful China to support constructive approaches to resolving political and economic differences, it’s certainly worth carefully considering whether aspects of the U.S.-Russian experience with space cooperation can be pursued with China in order to serve long-term American interests.
Frank Klotz is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, as well as the former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and the former vice commander of Air Force Space Command.