China launched an anti-satellite test in 2007 and an anti-ballistic missile test in 2010 without alerting the international community beforehand. Now the Beijing government has moved a step closer to its goal of building a space station by 2020: In June, China completed a successful manned docking test, keeping on track to execute the three-step space plan it announced in the 1990s.
As China quickly carves out its place in space, American experts are beginning to question what its moves mean for the United States at a time NASA is undergoing a fundamental shift in its own mission. That’s partly because China’s agenda remains unclear, despite official claims that the program’s intentions are peaceful.
“Peaceful is in the eye of the beholder,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a policy research center in Washington. “The Chinese military is thinking of space in ways that would threaten U.S. space assets.”
China’s space program does have civilian applications, and a nation can make significant technological advances from knowledge gained through space exploration. The United States also remains the international leader in space. But as the American program shifts direction and China’s advances, should the United States be worried about a threat to its security?
According to an April report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional commission, the answer is: Maybe. “While the overall level of its space technology may not match that of the United States and other space-faring nations, China’s relative advances are significant,” it said. “Even relative increases in Chinese space capabilities could present challenges for the United States.”
The report, by Cheng and Mark A. Stokes, said China “is emerging as a space power.”
June’s launch involved sending three Chinese astronauts into space to complete the country’s first manual docking of a spacecraft with another space module. The expedition means that China is one of just three countries to have docked successfully with orbiting stations.
“It does reflect a fair degree of sophistication on China’s part,” said Jonathan Pollack, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.
It also might signal China’s military ambitions. While the Chinese say their program is peaceful, Cheng of the Heritage Foundation said the United States couldn’t ignore the 2007 anti-satellite test, in which China destroyed one of its own weather satellites without prior notice.
Space technology and military capability are deeply connected. Satellites give China access to a global positioning system, which can be used to collect intelligence on other countries’ military ships and bases, creating the potential for China to target and attack those assets, said Dan Blumenthal, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington; he’s also a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
In addition, satellites can be used to blind or destroy other nations’ satellites, Cheng said. That’s a threat to U.S. security because most American military operations cannot be conducted without a robust satellite system.
As military and national power increasingly relies on space dominance, so will future wars, he said. “The Chinese military has concluded that winning the next war requires the ability to establish space dominance and superiority,” he added.
Part of China’s warfare strategy is not only finding a place for itself in space, but also working to deny space to any potential enemy, he said.
“The United States . . . has had a monopoly on power in space,” Blumenthal said. “Now it has a competitor in that realm.”
In recent years, NASA’s mission has been modified. Its manned space program has been slowing steadily since the George W. Bush administration, which started the shutdown of the space shuttle program. Its planetary science program has changed as well: In a 2010 address at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Barack Obama stated his commitment to NASA and pledged to continue funding the agency, but he also detailed plans to scale back on NASA’s studies of planets.
This leaves the potential for China to surpass the United States in that field, said Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University.
“Obama has cut everything (but) the kitchen sink in terms of planetary science, which I think is the wrong thing to do,” he said.
Even so, NASA’s recent partnership with the private company SpaceX has received mostly positive reviews from the astronautics community. “This is absolutely the right way to go,” Hubbard said. “The privatization of space is not unlike what happened in the early days of aviation.”
A NASA spokesman said such private partnerships allowed the United States to focus on other endeavors.
“In order to explore beyond where any man or woman has ever been, we’re partnering with private industry so we can focus on the truly difficult missions, like sending humans to Mars,” David Weaver, the associate administrator for communications at NASA, said in an email.
In many ways, China is following in American footsteps, executing projects that the U.S. completed 50 years ago.
China’s recent emergence as a space power is a result of years of development since its space program launched in 1956, the Heritage Foundation’s Cheng said.
That’s bolstered by the exponentially increased wealth the country is experiencing now, as well as its Soviet-style methods.
“Authoritarian systems . . . tend to be very good at mobilizing resources to achieve relatively narrow goals, including in the realm of military technology,” said Jacques deLisle, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Just as the military potential of China’s space program is viewed as a threat, so is the strengthened sense of nationalism that comes with an advancing space program. Nations undertake spaceflight – particularly human spaceflight – for national interest, Stanford’s Hubbard said.
“It’s a badge of accomplishment on the international stage to have a human spaceflight program,” he said. “They want to be seen as a major player, not an emerging nation. Having your own space program gives bragging rights that you’ve joined the club that previously only the United States and Russia were members of.”
China depends heavily on nationalism for its legitimacy, deLisle said.
“Of course, anything that stokes nationalism could be construed as threatening,” he said, and could be a source of increased tension with the United States.
As with any nation’s space program, China’s can have civilian applications, noted John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Technology such as telecommunications infrastructure and devices such as cellphones and small cameras all resulted from space technology, specifically satellites, he said. This has the potential to boost the Chinese economy by giving the Chinese the skills to manage a large, complicated technological-development project.
While the world can easily see China’s space advancements, the country’s opaque agenda for its space program leaves little for experts to work with as they try to piece together how these recent advancements will affect the United States and the world.
“Beijing’s lack of transparency over military budgets, and potential risks associated with the military applications of space technology, remain major causes for concern,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its report.
Despite its advancements, China isn’t in a space race with the United States. Its Asian neighbors might see things differently, however.
“The Chinese aren’t in much of a space race, certainly not with us,” Cheng said. “They are building their space program on their own timetable. . . . Both India and Japan are looking at the Chinese very nervously.”