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Long March 2F launch
China and the US often misunderstand and misinterpret each others’ space programs, making cooperation difficult. (credit: Xinhua)

Mysterious dragon: myth and reality of the Chinese space program

On November 4 a Reuters story reported that “state media” in China had quoted a “leading scientist” saying that China planned on sending a man to the Moon by 2017, a year before NASA does.

There were many things wrong with this claim. The article originally appeared not in “state media,” but in a Chinese tabloid newspaper known—in China anyway—for its sensationalized reporting. The scientist who was quoted works on the Chinese robotic space program, not the human program, and was most likely misquoted. None of the Western reporters bothered to question the original news source nor the qualifications of the scientist who had supposedly made those remarks.

To observers of the Chinese space program and the way that the subject is reported and discussed in the West, it was a familiar story. Only one week before, a conference in Washington, DC on the Chinese space program featured a number of speakers who warned that the Western press—and even American government agencies—frequently quote Chinese media sources that have no credibility within their own country concerning claims made about the Chinese space program. Very few reporters or even government analysts bother to ask even basic questions, such as is the media source reputable, and is the person being quoted even in the proper position to know his subject. This is made even worse by the fact that Chinese media is exploding, with non-government newspapers and websites appearing every day. The resulting misunderstandings can have serious consequences, including resulting in misguided government policies.

Experts warn that the Western press—and even American government agencies—frequently quote Chinese media sources that have no credibility within their own country concerning claims made about the Chinese space program.

The conference was sponsored by the CNA Corporation, a federally-funded think tank that has a contract from the Department of Defense to monitor Chinese military development. The conference was initiated by one of CNA’s analysts, who was interested in the subject of the Chinese space program and realized that there was very little formal discussion of it in the United States. The speakers included a broad array of academics, a former government official, industry representatives, CNA’s own analysts, and an arms control advocate. (A list of the speakers is at the end of this article.) Despite the range of speakers, there was a surprising amount of agreement among them about the need for more sophisticated analysis and better understanding of Chinese aims in space.

The conference was conducted on a “not for name attribution basis,” but will result in a conference report from CNA in the near future. Given the quality of the discussion, it is worth reporting what was said even if the conference rules forbid indicating who said it.

Operating in different orbits

Perhaps the most important conclusion reached by the speakers was that prospects for space cooperation between China and the United States are remote because the two countries have fundamentally different ideas of what is necessary for cooperation to occur. The Chinese believe that space cooperation could help improve relations between the two countries. They view it as a steppingstone toward better understanding. In contrast, the American government believes that cooperation can only occur after the political relationship between the two countries has improved. Space cooperation would then be a reward and/or a symbol of closer ties.

Several of the speakers revealed that after the Chinese launched their first manned spacecraft into orbit in 2003, they were shocked and disappointed to learn that the Americans had no interest in space cooperation. In 2000, China had made an overture to the United States about flying their spacecraft to the International Space Station and were rebuffed. The Chinese believed that the reason was because they had not yet demonstrated their technological capabilities in space. They believed that launching a human into orbit would prove that China was now a serious power worthy of cooperation and the Americans would agree. The Chinese were dismayed to learn that other issues, such as Taiwan, China’s military buildup, and human rights, were the real impediments to cooperation in space.

The bottom line for the speakers was that absent a dramatic policy change in either Washington or Beijing, international cooperation in space is not going to happen in the near future. Either Beijing will have to change its military, foreign policy, and human rights policies, or Washington will need an entirely new presidential administration and Congress.

After the Chinese launched their first manned spacecraft into orbit in 2003, they were shocked and disappointed to learn that the Americans had no interest in space cooperation.

Several of the speakers—not known as critical of White House policy—suggested that the United States was missing an important opportunity to engage China. Fly a single taikonaut aboard a space shuttle to the ISS, one of them suggested, and instantly the United States is back in a clear leadership position regarding China. Another indicated that cooperating with China would give the United States access to Chinese rocket and space experts, and give the Chinese an incentive to “play nice” internationally. Cooperation could take place on several levels. The lowest would be data sharing and cooperation on robotic scientific missions. Higher level cooperation could be commercial efforts and human spaceflight. However, ever since the 1998 “Cox Report” from Congress, there has been strong opposition within Congress to even the most basic space cooperation with China.

No race and no roads

Another speaker revealed that after the recent launch of Shenzhou 6 into orbit with two crewmen aboard, there was widespread celebration in China but also some muted public criticism. Some Chinese media outlets ran editorials hailing this great accomplishment, but also suggesting that the government needed to devote more money to social programs. Internet bulletin boards also featured some of the same concerns, and included warnings that the government needed to closely monitor the space program in order to prevent corruption. In China outright criticism of the Communist Party is suppressed, but it is still possible for media to question government policies. Apparently the Chinese people share some of the same domestic opinions about their space program as Americans do about theirs.

Despite Western media—and political—comments to the contrary, all of the speakers agreed that China is not trying to “race” the United States in space. In fact, the Chinese make an issue out of stressing that they should not race the US. As one speaker noted, “They clearly recognize what happened to the Soviet Union getting sucked into SDI.” They don’t want to repeat that mistake.

A different speaker suggested that the Chinese space program, particularly its manned program, was a major liability for the country because it used up scarce engineering talent that was required elsewhere. Every engineer working on the Chinese space program was one who was not building bridges. This is even more acute because the space program is incredibly inefficient, with far too many people working on it. One person who recently visited China remarked that they had asked a Chinese engineer if he liked his job. He replied that it was great, but he only wished that the three other people who also held it would get out of his way.

According to one speaker with knowledge of the Bush administration space policy, China was not the reason that the White House developed the Vision for Space Exploration. However, it did contribute to a concern that the United States leads in space technology but could lose that lead if it was not vigilant.

Intentions and misunderstandings

One of the big questions the speakers tried to address is what the Chinese are attempting to achieve in space. A major priority is the acquisition of better communications satellites to feed their growing market. Because access to American satellites is restricted, the Chinese have turned to European communications satellites instead. The Chinese have put little effort into developing their own comsats, believing that the cost and time required to do so is prohibitive.

The Chinese read practically everything they can about the American civilian and military space programs. Unfortunately, they also tend to believe everything that they read.

In general, the Chinese want better capabilities in all of their satellite fields—better weather forecasting, better navigation, and better military satellites. Their human spaceflight program remains an enigma, however. Although it does have some military aspects, it appears to largely be driven by the desire for prestige and both international and domestic recognition. However, one speaker warned that prestige is not a particularly useful measure for predicting what the Chinese intend to do next.

The speakers also warned that both sides tend to misread the other. The Chinese read practically everything they can about the American civilian and military space programs. Unfortunately, they also tend to believe everything that they read. As a result, some American actions, such as “space wargames” that have featured China as the imaginary enemy, have convinced the Chinese that the United States is serious about attacking them. Similarly, the Pentagon has taken dubious Chinese reports and interpreted them as real.

Military space

The speakers also discussed the Chinese military space program and here they were in less agreement. In general, they agreed that the Chinese human spaceflight program was not very worrisome from a military point of view, despite the fact that it is officially run by the military. One academic noted that the bureaucratic lines of authority are complex and simply because the space program reports to one military bureaucracy does not mean that this reflects who really controls it. It is possible that this is essentially due to convenience, not military control of the human spaceflight program. Another person added that both the United States and the Soviet Union had considered military human spaceflight decades ago and determined that it was essentially worthless, so there is no reason to believe that the Chinese will fare any better. Furthermore, human spaceflight is a notoriously bad way to develop overall space capabilities.

The more difficult issue is determining Chinese military aims in space. Although there has been much reporting in the West that the Chinese seek to blunt American space control with asymmetric attacks, most of the speakers agreed that there is dubious evidence to support this claim, and not all of them agreed that it is true. One frequent critic of American rhetoric about the Chinese pointed out that the Chinese seemed to be developing some of the same military space programs as the United States, which is essentially a symmetric response, not an asymmetric one. Others noted that although there has been much discussion of the Chinese desire for antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, Chinese military doctrine actually stresses information denial, which is more likely to include “soft kill” measures such as jamming communications or shutting down the information flow rather than blowing up satellites. Furthermore, they cautioned that much of the rhetoric in China about military space operations reflects an ongoing debate, rather than conclusions the Chinese have reached about the need to attack American satellites.

The speakers also generally agreed that reports of a Chinese “parasite microsatellite” that could attach to American satellites and blow them up are essentially bogus, and that the US Defense Department has created a threat that does not exist.

Much of the rhetoric in China about military space operations reflects an ongoing debate, rather than conclusions the Chinese have reached about the need to attack American satellites.

What the speakers did not agree upon was why the Chinese, along with the Russians, have proposed a ban on the weaponization of space. One speaker argued that this is clearly directed at American missile defense efforts, not American space superiority in general. Another stated that it was probably because of a Chinese concern with American space assets such as reconnaissance satellites. They also agreed that it is unclear if the Chinese proposal reflects a genuine interest in arms control—to restrict American actions, of course—or is more of a propaganda effort to score points internationally. One speaker pointed out that although the current American policy is to not even discuss these issues, it might be worthwhile to start a dialogue, if only to determine who in the Chinese government is leading this initiative and why.

A military officer in the audience suggested that how one interprets the Chinese space program depends upon whether or not that person views China as a threat. Although several speakers agreed that this is true, they also added that it is not a useful way to look at the situation. For starters, it is overly simplistic and not a falsifiable thesis—if China is a threat, then what would it take to “prove” that the country is not a threat? Such a limited definition also prevents the United States from taking advantage of opportunities that may appear. One of the speakers noted that China is a major trading partner and a major purchaser of American Treasury bonds. Clearly, if China is a threat, it does not prevent trading with them or letting them finance our spending. A different speaker pointed out that Russia currently has missiles pointed at the United States and frequently does things that the United States does not like, and yet Russia is a full-fledged partner in the International Space Station. So there is no inherent reason why China must be treated differently.

What all of the participants agreed upon, however, was that when it comes to the Chinese space program, knowledge and sophisticated analysis are in short supply. Given the quality of the discussion at the conference, and the thought-provoking ideas it produced, there is reason to hope that improvement can happen.


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ISPCS 2015