For the senior leadership of the People’s Republic of China, space is a key strategic domain. It is tied to key aspects of “comprehensive national power (zonghe guojia liliang; 综合国家力量),” the range of factors that contribute to a nation’s overall capabilities. The development of Chinese space capabilities is seen as a strategic imperative, because its development will help support advancements in the overall level of China’s comprehensive national power. For this reason, the space sector appeared among the key sectors highlighted in China’s Fifth Plenum, where the new space technologies, together with the transition towards renewables or the emphasis on digitalization and innovation, emerged as key drivers of national and international growth.
A central element of China’s space strategy is to support the development of China’s broader economy. Space operations bring together many different advanced technologies, including not only information and communications technology (ICT), but advanced materials, energy storage, advanced manufacturing, and systems integration and systems engineering. A well-developed aerospace industry will therefore help advance China’s industrial and technological sophistication by generating demand for advanced capabilities.
An advanced space industrial base will also directly generate jobs. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) are each believed to employ over 100,000 workers. This, in turn, generates demand for people with advanced engineering degrees in such fields as aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer engineering.
Furthermore, Chinese analysts seem to recognize that the future of the space economy includes not only space launch, but space services. China’s development of the Beidou satellite navigation system allows China to compete with the United States, Europe, and Russia for the global position, navigation, and timing (PNT) market. China also appears to be trying to develop a commercial remote sensing industry.
Similarly, by maintaining a high-profile interest in space, Chinese leaders hope to continue attracting talented students into aerospace-related fields. When the Chinese were debating whether to undertake a manned space program in 1992, Yang Shangkun, then China’s president and vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission threw his support behind the program because it would help nurture a new generation of designers and engineers. Without a new mission, he observed, there could be a break from the older generation that had completed the “two bombs, one satellite” effort (referring to the indigenous development effort supporting China’s atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, and first satellite). For the Chinese leadership, the linkage between a space program and robust human talent development is explicit.
Space systems and operations are fundamentally dual-use in nature. The development of space capabilities inevitably affects military forces. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) analysts note that space systems both enhances the capabilities of nuclear and conventional forces, while also contributing to deterrence in its own right. One Chinese volume of teaching materials, for example, notes that if one cannot control space, then one cannot discuss control of the land sea, or air.
As important, from the PLA’s perspective, winning future informationized local wars will rest upon the ability to conduct unified, or integrated, joint operations (yitihua lianhe zuozhan; 一体化联合作战). The ability to undertake such operations begins with , the struggle begins not on land, sea, or air, but in space and the ability to establish space dominance (zhitian quan; 制天权).
Space dominance is the ability to exploit space at a given time for a given area. This involves not only the ability of one side to assert control, but also entails denying an adversary a similar ability to exploit space. For the PLA, this presents an asymmetric advantage, since many of the PLA’s most important contingencies do not require space capabilities.
For example, Taiwan is only about 100 miles from the Chinese mainland. Consequently, China can undertake intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities against the island with manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, radio direction finding, fishing boats, special operations forces teams, and a variety of land-based electronic intelligence and signals intelligence facilities. It does not need space-based remote sensing capabilities to monitor the island. For communications, the PLA can call upon not only organic military communications equipment, but the panoply of Chinese fiber optic, cellular, microwave, and radio communications facilities that are part of the broader national telecommunications infrastructure. Again, it does not have to rely upon space-based systems for its communications needs.
The PLA enjoys comparable advantages for contingencies that might arise on its border with India. Even for the South China Sea, and the expanse embodied in the “Nine Dash Line,” it is not clear that China needs space-based systems for either ISR or communications.
By contrast, the United States would be operating far from home. Its air and naval operations would be much more heavily dependent upon space-based systems for ISR and communications support. Coordinating forces operating near Taiwan with those that might be based on Guam or Hawaii, or even the continental United States (e.g., UAVs) could only be undertaken with a worldwide communications network which must include space assets.
The PRC has also assiduously sought to integrate space into its foreign policy. This has included forging international space organizations as well as engaging in outreach to a variety of other nations. The recent lunar lending of China’s Chang’e spacecraft represented a major milestone in this sense, not only because it reaffirmed the efficiency and capacity of Chinese space sector and technologies, but also because it strengthened the geopolitical image of the country as third country to ever complete such operation, after the US and Russia.
Perhaps the most prominent Chinese initiative in space has been the creation of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). Building off a 1992 workshop on multilateral space cooperation, the PRC helped midwife the establishment of this organization in 2005, when the convention was first signed by China, along with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, and Thailand. Turkey subsequently also joined. Mexico is an observer; Egypt is an associate member. In 2009, the PRC signed a Host Country agreement with APSCO. It also provided the funding and real estate for the headquarters, which is in Beijing.
Under its auspices, APSCO has built six networks, which include provisions for data sharing, space tracking, disaster monitoring, and education and training. In addition, APSCO has sponsored a variety of conferences, such as the 2013 APSCO Space Law and Policy Forum.
China has also been an active part of the international space market. In the 1990s, China provided launch services for a variety of customers, competing successfully with the US, European Space Agency, and Russia. It was only the Loral-Hughes incident, which led to American export controls on any satellite containing American parts, that curtailed China’s commercial space launch efforts. In recent years, however, China has gotten around this problem by offering a soup-to-nuts approach to satellite sales, designing and building the satellites for foreign customers, as well as launching the satellite, conducting in-orbit checks, before handing over the system to the customer. The first such sale, of a communications satellite to Nigeria, was valued at approximately $250 million, including satellite construction, launch, and insurance. A similar sale in 2010 to Bolivia, including training Bolivian scientists and operators.
Since China is building the infrastructure of a number of nations via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) efforts, it is reasonable that the Chinese would integrate its Beidou PNT information into that infrastructure. In the longer term, however, this means that nations accepting Chinese BRI money and assistance may find it very difficult to extricate themselves, because of that same reliance.
The operation of various infrastructure such as power grids and pipelines requires a timing signal for their smooth operation. Such systems when built by China are likely to employ Beidou signals. Changing from Beidou to an alternative system may require Chinese permission, as well as access to the algorithms. One should not be surprised if Beijing were to be reluctant to promptly undertake such measures (and not exploit the intervening period to either lobby against the change or wait for a shift in the political winds). In the case of 5G networks, it may be made even more difficult to find substitutes for the more extensive Beidou satellite network, which likely allows more than one satellite to be in line-of-sight at any time.
The PRC has long viewed space as a key instrument for promoting national development. Its space program has enjoyed support from the highest level of its national leadership. In the coming decades, this emphasis is likely to grow, given how its space program touches on such key aspects as national economic development, national security, and foreign policy.
As important, as space grows in importance for other nations, China is likely to be an ever-growing presence in international space forums, organizations, and markets. This will extend beyond purely space-related systems (e.g., space launch, satellite sales) to satellite applications, such as PNT. In this regard, China’s capabilities may allow them to embed themselves in the infrastructure of many nations, in a way that will prove hard to counter or circumvent.
Given their economic and military space capabilities, it is likely that China is already moving to make space a premier focus of international competition in the coming decades of the 21st Century.
 JIANG Lianju, Space Operations Teaching Materials (Beijing, PRC: Military Science Publishing House, 2013), p. 69.
 People’s Liberation Army Terminology (Beijing, PRC: Military Science Publishing House, 2011), p. 79.
 Peter deSelding, “China’s Satellite Industry Enters World Stage,” Space News (July 5, 2005).