China’s space mission (part 2): aiming to control the high ground
17 Apr 2019|

China is determined to be a leading space power, able to influence events from above in the 21st century.

Part 1 of this two-part series examined the importance of military space capabilities to the People’s Liberation Army’s goal of completing, by 2050, the process of ‘informatisation’—developing the ability to transmit, collect and process information in space, at sea and in areas such as ballistic missile defence.

In part 2, I consider China’s ambition to dominate the high ground of space, and specifically the potential for competition on and around the moon in coming decades.

China’s human activities in space have been underway since the flight of Shenzhou 5 carrying Yang Liewei on 15 October 2003, and have made steady progress since. Successive Shenzhou missions have demonstrated capabilities and procedures needed to deploy two small Tiangong space labs. These have given China practical experience and the infrastructure to take its ‘next great leap’—deployment of a small space station in the early 2020s. The Chinese Space Station (CSS) will weigh 60 tons and last 10 years, and the first module may fly on the new Long March 5B booster this year. With the International Space Station’s funding and operational lifetime nearing an end, perhaps by 2028, China’s CSS may, within a decade, be the only space station in low-earth orbit. Beijing is strongly promoting its station internationally as a logical successor to the ISS.

China has also considered crewed missions to the lunar surface by the 2030s, including the establishment of a base, and has ambitions for missions to Mars.

With those longer term goals in mind, China’s 2017 space white paper makes clear a vision ‘to build China into a space power in all respects’. It emphasises that China strives to ‘acquire key technologies and conduct experiments on such technologies to raise our manned spaceflight capacity, laying a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space’. That lays claim to significant influence in an enormous sphere with boundaries marked out by the moon’s orbit around the earth. The CSS is one step along a path that will see Chinese taikonauts on the lunar surface in the 2030s. China’s ambition to be a comprehensive space power dovetails into the ‘China Dream’ of a rejuvenated nation that’s once again a middle kingdom and global leader.

China’s ‘space dream’ has been identified by US Vice President Mike Pence as a factor in accelerating NASA’s plans for a return to the moon by 2024. This has important astrostrategic implications, and Pence’s talk of a new space race shouldn’t be dismissed as lazy thinking driven by what Bleddyn Bowen refers to as ‘astronationalism’.

The Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 space threat assessment, Challenges to security in space, highlights the strong military character of all of China’s space activities. The requirement for ‘civil–military fusion’ requires nominally civilian science activities to contribute to PLA advancement. Even what seem to be civil space activities must be seen to be contributing to Chinese military advancement. Whether this involves operating the CSS in low-earth orbit, or potentially in cislunar space or on the moon’s surface, the PLA will be playing an important role in furthering China’s space power ambitions.

While it’s important not to be overly alarmist about Chinese space activities, neither should Western observers be naive. China’s approach to space is not that of NASA, or of the European Space Agency. International engagement with China on space needs to be approached cautiously, with a recognition that the PLA has an inherent role in exploiting access to Western technology at the expense of its foreign partners.

The US and China are not yet in a space race but the impact of US domestic politics could see China take the lead.

NASA’s proposed launch vehicle for its planned 2024 lunar return—the Space Launch System (SLS)—is well behind schedule and over budget. It was to fly in 2020, but that’s likely to slip. US cutbacks mean a more powerful version, the Block 1B, which could lift 130 tons, has been cancelled, leaving the less capable Block 1, intended to lift 95 tons. At a cost of US$1 billion per launch for a fully expendable Block 1 craft, and a launch rate of once per year, it’s simply not competitive with commercial launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs US$90 million per launch for a partly reusable rocket. The Falcon lifts 64 tons and its second flight occurred last week.

Strong interests within Congress are protecting the SLS—nicknamed the ‘Senate Launch System’ for the jobs it generates in key congressional districts—from cancellation and may prevent NASA from turning to commercial launch providers to achieve its 2024 moon landing goal.

In the meantime, China is pursuing its own heavy launch vehicle, the Long March 9, which is set to be able to lift 140 tons and is designed for crewed lunar missions. It’s suggested that its first flight will take place around 2028. As China finishes deployment of the CSS, perhaps by 2022, it can begin concentrating on the Long March 9 and its lunar plans, and, if the US is serious about a return to the moon by 2024, China may well accelerate its development of the Long March 9.

The CSS will be a prestigious accomplishment for Beijing, particularly if it can entice foreign partners away from the US. If Washington’s focus on a 2024 lunar goal weakens, and progress stalls, then Beijing may see an opportunity. What better way to erode the primacy of the US in space and to demonstrate China’s return to global leadership than by being first in this new journey to the moon?

To respond to such a challenge would require leadership from the Oval Office to overturn congressional resistance to a commercial launch solution that would effectively ring the death knell of the SLS, with severe political costs for some in Congress.

Will such leadership be provided by a second-term Trump administration or a post-Trump Democrat leadership that may not be that interested in going back to the moon despite the astrostrategic importance of controlling the ‘high ground’ of cislunar space?

From the moon, China, with a strong PLA presence, would have a vantage point that could allow it to control access to vital lunar resources that could generate prosperity for a 21st-century superpower. As the Chinese defence white paper of 2015 notes, ‘whoever controls space will control the earth’.