Michael Raska: China and the Globalization of Space: Toward A New Space Race?

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The space program of the United States is stalling as a result of the global economic crisis, making the world leader in space technologies increasingly dependent on Russia for the launch of its manned and unmanned vehicles and vulnerable to emerging space powers seeking to get into the game, among whom first and foremost China.

With the final landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the US will effectively lose its independent human spaceflight launch capability. During the transition to the follow-on systems, it will have to rely on Russian Soyuz space launch vehicles for both manned and unmanned flights to the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, more nations are joining the Space Club with a growing awareness that space is vital to national security. According to a study by Euroconsult, more than 50 countries are currently investing in domestic space programs. In 2010, world government spending on space set a historic record with civil and defense government spending combined at $71.5 billion, and projected to remain at around $70 billion until 2015.

The global diffusion of space-based technologies and related knowledge broadens the international competitive pressures to develop innovative space capabilities. Dominant actors are increasingly challenged by a second and third tier of space leaders, and the competitive gaps among all nations are narrowing.

China, as a rising great power, views the exploration of space not only as the cornerstone of its national science and technology innovation efforts, but also as an important catalyst to achieve its national development goals and its vital political, economic, and security interests.

With space investments exceeding $2 billion in 2010, China became the second largest spender on space in Asia after Japan with $3.8 billion. China last year conducted as many launches as the United States’ 15, second only to Russia with 31.

While many aspects of China’s vast space programs remain classified, Beijing has publicized its technical prowess and space ambitions in areas such as launch vehicles, launch schedules, satellites, human space flight, as well as command and control, anti-satellite technologies, and sensor capabilities.

In 2003, China became the third nation to complete a successful manned space mission by launching the Shenzhou-5 (Divine Vessel) carried by the Long March-2F rocket. Since then, China has carried out two additional manned missions: Shenzhou 6 (SZ-6) in October 2005 with two “taikonauts” onboard and Shenzhou 7 (SZ-7) spaceflight from September 2008.

By 2025, China envisions the completion of a 60-ton orbital space station, and possibly fielding of a reusable launch vehicle (RLV).

China’s evolving space capabilities have also benefited from the increasing participation of its aerospace industry in the global commercial aerospace market. Since the late 1990s, Beijing has gradually introduced elements of competition, autonomy, entrepreneurship, and decentralization into China’s defense-industrial base with the aim to overcome the entrenched monopoly of China’s traditional defense industrial conglomerates and transform them into global primes by the end of next decade.

The competitive nature of global space launch vehicle markets provides greater incentives for Chinese aerospace companies not only to increase their revenues, but more importantly close the technological gaps through global commercial technology transfers and services.

In this regard, China is believed to have embarked on a full scale technology development program on a new heavy-lift Long March rockets - the LM-5 series, designed to overcome the limitation of existing SLVs in terms of cost and reliability. The LM-5 is expected to be launched in 2014 from the newly constructed Wenchang Space Center on the Hainan Island.

Space launch vehicles and systems are also dual-use strategic assets, valuable to both civilian and military communities. In China, there is no clear separation between its civil and military space programs and industries. Beijing does not clearly delineate its satellite functions in terms of military, civilian, or commercial use.

The PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD) of the Central Military Commission manages the launch, tracking, and control of all space launches, civilian and military satellites, and coordinates technical aspects of China’s unmanned and manned space activities, including the manned spaceflight Project 921.

With the pace, scope, and dual dimension of China’s space programs, the key question is whether other countries may also accelerate their efforts to develop similar space capabilities?

As more nations are joining the Space Club, there is a growing awareness that space is vital to national security, as space assets may be increasingly vulnerable to a range of threats that may deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt or destroy these assets.

Since the great space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, aerospace has been considered as the “international geostrategic high ground.” With the globalization of space, that ground will become increasingly competitive and contested.

(Michael Raska is a Ph.D. candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected])