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Shenzhou-9 after landing
The Shenzhou-9 reentry capsule after landing on Friday. Does the success of this mission increase the prospects for cooperation or competition with the US—or neither? (credit: Xinhua)

Divining meaning from a divine vessel’s latest flight

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Around 10 am Friday morning Beijing time (10 pm Thursday EDT), the Shenzhou-9 capsule touched down in China’s Inner Mongolia region, ending a nearly 13-day mission in low Earth orbit. While the landing may have been a little rough and ungainly—the capsule settled on its side, although its three-person crew emerged unharmed—the mission itself was a success, demonstrating China’s ability to rendezvous and dock with an orbiting lab module, Tiangong-1. The flight also featured the first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yang, and was the longest of China’s four crewed spaceflights, dating back to 2003.

“In the past ten years or so, China’s really been hitting on all cylinders with its space program,” said Pollpeter.

While this latest flight of the Shenzhou (a word usually translated as “divine vessel” or “divine craft”) achieved a number of milestones, coverage of it in the West, particularly in the United States, was relatively limited. There was a modest amount of hand-wringing about China’s ability to launch humans into space while the US is currently unable to do so until either Orion or commercial alternatives enter service later this decade, but without the same degree of shrill warnings, like China beating the US back to the Moon, made after earlier Shenzhou missions.

But how concerned should the US be about China’s overall space program, and in particular its human spaceflight program? A panel session held Friday in Washington by the Marshall Institute and the Techamerica Space Enterprise Council addressed the implications of China’s space program to the US. Panelists there suggested that the US should pay closer attention not so much to China’s highly-visible human spaceflight efforts but instead to other space activities that could pose a risk to Americans interests in space and on the Earth.

Hitting on all cylinders

While Shenzhou may be getting most of the attention that is accorded to Chinese space activities, it is just part of a broader increase in space activities, including a surge of satellite launches, in recent years. Last year, for the first time, China eclipsed the US in orbital launches, carrying out 19 launches to the US’s 18. (In 2010, the two countries tied with 15 launches each.) Those launches have included an array of remote sensing, communications, and navigation satellites with both civil and military applications.

“In the past ten years or so, China’s really been hitting on all cylinders with its space program,” said Kevin Pollpeter, deputy director of the East Asia Program at Defense Group Inc. “They’re really going great guns with both the launches and the different types of spacecraft.”

Pollpeter said China’s surge in space activities can be summed up in a three-word phase: comprehensive national power, a concept first developed in China to win support for its human spaceflight program. “Comprehensive national power is a basket of everything that makes a country powerful: political, diplomatic, economic, military, science and technology,” he explained. That line of reasoning has expanded to encompass its entire space program. “Politically, it has payoffs for China, internally and externally.”

China’s human spaceflight program has generally been perceived in the West as a deliberate, methodical program, with a steady, if slow-paced, series of flights through the recent Shenzhou-9 mission. “But if you look at China’s development path and you read the histories of the development of their human spaceflight program, it was nothing but deliberate,” he said. “They had some huge difficulties bringing this program into fruition.” That included problems with the initial uncrewed test flights as well as concerns at the time of the first crewed mission, Shenzhou-5 in 2003, that they had not performed enough tests.

“China is not racing with the United States, whether it’s manned space or unmanned space,” Cheng said. “The Chinese have their own program, their own objectives, their own timeline.”

Today, he said, the missions are spaced out largely because of budgetary reasons, adding that the current budgets—not revealed by Chinese officials—would likely increase in order to support an increased flight rate and development of a permanent space station by the end of the decade. However, he suggested that human spaceflight had a relatively low priority in the eyes of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which runs the overall space program. “I would suspect that, if push came to shove,” he said, “if things had to be cut, they may look towards the human spaceflight program” because it was less applicable to the military than other satellite programs.

“At the operational and tactical levels, crewed spaceflight really is not a security issue,” said Dean Cheng, a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation. It does play a role at the strategic level, though, he said, “as a form of advertising to the rest of Asia and the rest of the world,” demonstrating, among other things, China’s confidence in its technology.

China’s interest in space, he said, stems in part from the doctrine of “information superiority” the Chinese military adopted after witnessing the role technology played in the first Gulf War and in the Balkans in the late 1990s. “Information is a broad concept,” he said, encompassing areas as broad as logistics and battle damage assessments. “Every Chinese doctrinal document that talks about information superiority says space is how you do that.”

Information superiority in space can also be attained by disrupting the ability of an adversary from using its space assets, something that China demonstrated with its 2007 anti-satellite missile test. But, Cheng cautioned, there’s more to space superiority than ASAT weapons. “Don’t automatically assume that when you see ‘space superiority’ that means ASATs,” he said. It’s more likely, he said, that Chinese military would “hard kill”—i.e., destroy—ground stations or disrupt data links than make attacks on satellites directly.

Implications for the US

So what do these Chinese space activities, both civil and military, mean for the United States? Do they open up new opportunities for cooperation, or do they mark a new phase of competition between the US and China? The panelists Friday suggested the answer may be neither.

“China is not racing with the United States, whether it’s manned space or unmanned space,” Cheng said. “The Chinese have their own program, their own objectives, their own timeline. If China is racing with anyone—and that’s a big if—it’s not with the United States but with India and with Japan, the two other Asian space powers.”

Leslee Gilbert, a former staff director with the House Science Committee and now a vice president with Van Scoyoc Associates, said reactions to Chinese space feats like the recent Shenzhou-9 mission usually fall into two camps: a sign that China has joined an “elite space club” with the US and Russia, enabling greater cooperation; or concerns that China’s growing capabilities will enable it to dominate space. She added a third school of thought has also emerged: that despite Chinese advances, the US has not lost ground due to the evolving capabilities of its commercial spaceflight sector.

“Will China’s accomplishments herald a new space race, or generate increased cooperation in space? I would argue it would do neither,” she said. There are large obstacles to greater cooperation, including a current prohibition on NASA spending any money on cooperative activities with China. That would, she suggested, preclude any role for China on the ISS. “There are some very strong voices in Congress against partnerships with China, and against involving China on the International Space Station,” she said. “There’s not an equally strong proponent in Congress” for cooperation.

At the same time, she said, Chinese space activities aren’t perceived as a threat, and thus don’t motivate additional spending on space. “China’s recent mission barely makes the A-section of the national newspapers, and most Americans are largely unaware of their activities. Those who are aware are rather unimpressed about what they hear,” she said. “Americans, as a whole, don’t care.”

“For China to be considered a threat in Americans’ minds, they’re going to have to do something new, and not something new for China, but something new for the world,” she continued. Chinese plans to build a space station or even send humans to the Moon will not “generate angst” in America because they’ll be seen repeating accomplishments the US achieved decades ago. “China isn’t leading in space exploration, they’re clearly following, and, quite specifically, following the US.”

“For China to be considered a threat in Americans’ minds, they’re going to have to do something new, and not something new for China, but something new for the world,” Gilbert said.

The United States might not be the only obstacle to greater international cooperation by China’s human spaceflight program. “One would have to wonder whether or not Moscow in particular, but also Tokyo, the other competitor for Asian dominance, would welcome Chinese participation” on the ISS, Cheng suggested. Sino-European space cooperation prospects soured after Europe aborted its planned cooperation with China on the Galileo navigation system. “I’m not sure we understand how deeply that affected the Chinese,” he said.

Cheng also argued that proponents of greater space cooperation with China overplay their arguments when they claim that such efforts can improve relations between the two countries. “Space, in the US-China context, is the y-variable, not the x-variable,” he said. “It is a function of the larger issue of where US-China relations are.” That was the case during the Cold War with the Soviet Union as well, he said: the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 was an outcome of the détente between the two countries, not an instigator of it.

So China’s accomplishments in space—human and otherwise—fall somewhere in a gray zone between mortal threat to the US and grand new partner in global space exploration. “We have two countries that are both involved in space, that are not racing each other, but that are staring at each other quite warily,” Cheng said. The latest flight of a divine vessel appears unlikely to change that.