China wants to become a major player in space. It has the moon and Mars on its agenda, and seeks scientific and technological expertise to match the US. Humphrey Hawksley examines the implications of Beijing’s reach for the stars

Two Chinese astronauts, returning from the brand new Tiangong 2 space station, landed successfully on the frozen steppes of inner Mongolia in November, putting down yet another marker in an ever-expanding space programme which has long been a simmering source of tension with the United States. While both Beijing and Washington argue that space should be neutral territory, each is suspicious that the other is preparing for it to become a theatre of hostilities.

The Tiangong 2, launched in September, is tiny: only 10.4 metres long, with a 4.2-metre diameter, it is the size of a small cabin sailboat. Mission commander Jing Haipeng and first-time astronaut Chen Dong spent 30 days carrying out experiments to prepare for China’s first fully manned modular space station, planned to be operational by 2023.

This sixth and longest manned mission was praised in a congratulatory message by the Communist Party Central Committee: ‘Our manned space programme has achieved major new progress… in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology,’ it said.

Earlier in the month came another landmark success. The massive Long March 5 rocket made its inaugural launch from the newly-built Wenchang launch complex on Hainan Island. The complex itself breaks from tradition in an industry historically shrouded in secrecy. It has been designed with a lavish viewing area, and crowds of tourists watched as the 57-metre high rocket, standing on a platform emblazoned with the Chinese flag, lifted off in a blaze of yellow flame into south China’s night sky.

The Long March 5 is designed to become the heavy-lifting workhorse of China’s space activities. It can carry 25 tonnes to a low Earth orbit, against the 13 tonnes of its Long March 7 sister rocket, and will transport modules to build the Tiangong permanent space station. China claims the Long March 5 matches America’s Delta IV heavy launch rocket, and next year it will also be used to carry equipment for a robotic moon landing which will send back samples of moon rock for analysis.

‘Our short-term goal is to orbit the moon and land on the moon,’ said Wu Weiran, chief designer for the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) lunar missions. ‘Our long-term goal is to explore, land and settle there. We want a manned lunar landing for longer periods, and to establish a research base.’


China is also planning to follow in the paths of India, Russia and the US with a probing mission to Mars, even though it took some years for CNSA to get the green light from central government. ‘We could have started our Mars mission earlier,’ said Wu. ‘But now the country has given its approval. We will orbit Mars, land and deploy a rover all in one mission.’

Beijing spends about $6 billion a year on its space programme, a fraction of the annual $40 billion American budget. But the Americans are watching Chinese developments with concern. As with defence technology on Earth, China is playing catch-up with such worrying determination and speed that the US has forbidden its scientists from any collaboration.

China is excluded from the American-led multi-nation International Space Station (ISS) put together by the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA). Dozens of astronauts from 17 different countries have visited since it began operation in 1998. None has been from China. The long, historical rivalry on space exploration is based on two elements. One is that breaking the barriers of space, such as a moon or Mars landing, is seen as a symbol of national pride. The other is that the cutting edge of space technology feeds into more sophisticated weaponry.

The US has been on vigil from the start. The Soviet Union’s surprise launch of the Sputnik programme in 1957 prompted it to set up both NASA for its own space programme and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose mission is to ensure that US military technology remains better than anything produced by an enemy.

For the decades of the Cold War, while the Soviet Union and America actively tested space as a theatre of war, China had neither the wealth nor the expertise to compete. Moscow experimented with missiles that could destroy satellites and the US developed the Strategic Defense Initiative against Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as the Star Wars project. In the honeymoon relationship at the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia sought co-operation with projects like the ISS that continue today. It was only later that China came fully into the frame as a space rival.

In 2007, Beijing used a missile to destroy one of its own weather satellites, proving both the satellite’s vulnerability and the ease with which one can be attacked. The next year, the US made a retaliatory point by shooting down one of its own already malfunctioning military satellites. Both attacks sent yet more debris into space, with thousands of pieces of junk and equipment already orbiting the planet. They also showed up the possible consequences of a fully-fledged space battle.

Satellite navigation in cars, live television, tsunami, hurricane and drought predictions, instant phone calls, video chats, crop and market prices, climate change surveillance and much more is all co-ordinated through space. War there would change the modern world as many of us know it.

America’s shutout of China comes from a Republican-sponsored 2011 bill which prohibits NASA from engaging in bilateral agreements and co-ordination with Beijing. ‘The Chinese space programme is owned lock, stock and barrel by the People’s Liberation Army,’ said a key congressional sponsor, Texan John Culberson. ‘It’s really important that we keep the Red Chinese out of our space programme.’ For its part, China has reacted by reaching out with some success to the United Nations and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Last year the Chinese Academy of Sciences signed an agreement to collaborate with the ESA on a space mission known as SMILE. Beginning in 2021, it will examine ‘weather conditions’ in space created by supersonic winds of particles from the sun. And in June this year, China agreed with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs to open its Tiangong space station for experiments and visits by astronauts from other countries, specifically those that cannot afford their own space programmes.


While America is wary of China’s expansion in space, and sees much of it through a military prism, other governments have shown they are keen to collaborate. In that respect, the political elements mirror much of the Sino-American relationship on Earth, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. The question is: how will the existing superpower make way for the rising power, given that the US will remain the biggest player in space for many decades to come? And with that comes an added twist.

In the eyes of many in America, Moscow is again emerging as a Cold War-style enemy. Yet the two countries are too deeply entwined in space, including Russia’s supplying of launch facilities to the ISS, for America to mete out similar sanctions to those levied on China. Agreements on the current ISS project only run until 2024, which is when the Chinese modular space station should just be up and running.

It is impossible to predict how relations with Russia and China will unfold under the presidency of Donald Trump. But with no plans yet in place for a space station that runs beyond the next eight years, Russia and China could find that their own space programmes become more closely aligned and that there is much on which to collaborate.

Humphrey Hawksley, formerly the BBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief, is a specialist in the Asia-Pacific. His next book, Asian Waters: America, China and the Global Paradox, will be published in October 2017

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