China’s Pursuit of a “Space First”

Jiuquan Space Launch Center / Wikicommons

Jiuquan Space Launch Center / Wikicommons

Today’s emerging geopolitical competition in the Asia-Pacific region between China and India is igniting an Asian space race, with the original intent behind “space firsts” again surfacing. China seems to be working on a space strategy for establishing itself as a first-rate space power in the region, which could effectively increase Beijing’s political influence in the region and encourage neighboring countries to bandwagon. However, China’s rise via space is not without adverse economic and security implications  – and in order to contain potential resultants, the West must coordinate its space policy and program with likeminded Asian countries, such as India.

Despite competition by regional actors like India, China is working not only to cement its political power in the region and globally, but also to solidify its economic grasp on lucrative space ventures that can be leveraged on the political stage. Therefore, China’s space strategy is crafted to simultaneously meet its technological, geopolitical, and economic objectives. However, Beijing’s desire to convince the international community of its space power credentials will require a demonstration of its space prowess through innovative, eye-catching space missions.

The original Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union lasted from 1957-1969 and highlighted the technological prowess of each country, as they strove to accomplish missions never before attempted in outer space: a space first. Both nations viewed space as an arena where they could prove the superiority of their country’s form of political, economic, and societal organization.

Former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson underscored this thinking, remarking that the Soviet Union was drawing other nations into its orbit via the prestige it had attained through its technological accomplishments in space. As captured in Johnson’s words, “In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”

Ye Peijian, the chief designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), recently referenced prior space firsts, including India’s Mars mission, indicating that the moon and Mars are again emerging as proving grounds for nations to demonstrate their technological capacity. His recommendation that Beijing support a Mars mission serves both to commemorate important developments in the Communist Part of China’s (CPC) history, as well as the country’s space program. Peijian’s emphasis on China undertaking grand space missions is ultimately just one way to assert China’s overall dominance in influencing regional and global developments.

As of 2013, China was only the third nation to “soft-land” on the moon; by 2017, it intends to return lunar samples – a space accomplishment not replicated since the original space race. Today, China is on the precipice of completing its own space station– just as the International Space Station (ISS) suffers from the rather unenthusiastic support of its partners. The space station, slated for completion around 2024, could cement China as the only Asian nation, and possibly the only country in the world, to own such an asset.

However, India –China’s regional competitor– is not without its own space successes. In 2014, India successfully launched the Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft, making it the first Asian country to reach Mars. The mission garnered international prestige for India, effectively tilting the regional space power balance in its favor.

According to Peijian, China could not undertake a similar effort independently as the state administration did not provide enthusiastic support for a full-fledged Chinese Mars mission. At the time, it made sense to China’s political class to concentrate resources on the manned missions in low earth orbit, as well as on the robotic exploration of the moon, rather than on an independent high-risk Mars mission. China’s space policy planners eventually decided to instead hitch a ride on Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission. However, Russia’s mission failed, dealing a significant setback to China’s aspirations.

To shift the regional balance back towards China, and to counter India’s “simpler” mission of orbiting Mars, Peijian insists the country undertake a complex mission to Mars to include an orbiter, lander, and rover in a single launch. The mission is set for 2021,coinciding with the country’s centenary celebrations of the founding of the CPC.

Despite Peijian’s brushoff of India’s success with Mars, India’s mission was anything but simple; in fact, India’s success was marked by a number of breakthroughs on many technological fronts. The probe entered into the designated Martian orbit from behind the planet and executed various trajectory manoeuvres autonomously in deep space.

Aware of such mission critical tasks, Peijian wants China to assemble an experienced team drawn from his program, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program(CLEP). The CLEP is currently focused onseries of robotic moon missions, including returning lunar samples, with the eventual goal of landing Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2036.

However, a mission to Mars presents critical challenges for China. The communication distances, navigational hazards, orbital positions, and atmospheric conditions vary between the Moon and Mars – making rendezvous, orbital insertion, and descent challenging. Therefore, China plans to take advantage of another lunar mission to develop its technological capabilities and, in the process, acquire a true space first – landing on the far side of the moon.

The far side of the moon never comes into the view of the Earth, essentially rendering useless ground based observation equipment and rovers on the lunar surface that require line-of-sight communication with the Earth. These same limitation prevented both the United States and the Soviet Union from landing on the far side of the moon during the Cold War, but now gives China a critical opportunity to a never before realized mission.

Also underlying China’s lunar exploration vision is evaluating the technologies required for mining of lunar resources, particularly Helium-3. This isotope is thought to produce an energy output greater than its terrestrial counterparts, like Uranium, and without dangerous waste by-products. Access to large quantities of this material from the moon is essential for establishing a commercially viable energy production network on the Earth, although China has a number of limitations to overcome yet.

The moon is also rich in minerals like titanium, iron, silica and rare earth metals required for the design of various high-end technologies, both in civilian and military domains. China currently produces about 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, much to the concern of countries like the United States, Japan, and Canada that depend on these metals.

China has reduced its exports of rare earth metals as a strategy to dominate trade and maintain leverage in diplomatic conflicts. China’s Chang’e 5 robotic mission in 2017 will return about 2.2 kilograms of lunar samples in 2017. Though premature to predict the success of China’s strategy to mine lunar resources, the country’s very effort to do so underscores an economic dimension that reveals China’s view of outer space as a domain to be exploited.

China’s space strategy encompasses a three-fold objective, as seen in Peijian’s references to space firsts and China’s outer space exploration vision. First, because first-rate global space powers have already achieved many fundamental space firsts, China will emulate such missions to prove that it is closing the technological gap with them and establishing itself as a first-rate space power.

Second, China is in competition with India for regional influence. Although India stands amongst the second-rate space powers, it has demonstrated its capabilities with the success of its Mars Orbiter Mission. India has also undertaken high-value joint projects with the United States, Europe, and Russia. Within this regional context, both the Indian and Chinese space missions tend to be real space firsts, rather than duplications of the United States’ and Soviet Union’s Cold War space firsts.

Third, China portrays its space projects as commercial ventures to reinforce its economic influence. Gaining access to raw materials from space decreases China’s trade dependency on other countries. Ultimately, it will secure China’s trade influence as it enables the country to export critical materials, including rare earth elements. This becomes particularly significant, as lunar mining could be a viable alternative to fossil fuels and other high-risk materials used in energy generation. China’s lunar mining technologies could prompt other space powers, like Russia and Europe, to establish joint-ventures with China, wherein the Asian power could assume the lead – just as it has with initiatives like the One Belt, One Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

To keep Beijing from using its space accomplishments for geopolitical and economic influence in the region, the West should continue and heighten its coordination with regional countries, like India, that can level with China’s space credentials. And such efforts are already on track, as seen in the United States assisting India in communicating with its Mars probe by allowing the nation to use America’s deep space communication network.

India should also seriously consider the United States’ invitation to join the International Space Station project. India only stands to gain from the scientific research on-board the ISS, as well as offset China’s space position in the region. Such partnerships remain key in providing balance against China’s attempts to use space successes as economic leverage and political influence. Moreover, coordination reaffirms a single positive message that all international powers would do well to adopt: that space exploration merits collective effort, wherein science takes precedent over possible geoeconomic and geopolitical gains.


Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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