Academic journal article Naval War College Review

SPACE WEI QI: The Launch of Shenzhou V

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

SPACE WEI QI: The Launch of Shenzhou V

Article excerpt

Wei Qi is the favorite Chinese board game-chess with more than two hundred pieces rather than sixteen, allowing for significantly increased strategic complexity. When lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei lifted off into space from China's Jiuquan launch site just after 9 AM on 15 October 2003, returning twenty-one hours later after sixteen orbits around the earth, China made a significant geostrategic Wei Qi move. China views long-term geostrategic politics as having about the same number of possible permutations as a Wei Qi board, and it is posturing accordingly. The Shenzhou V launch was part of that posturing.

Perched atop a Long March (CZ-2F) launcher, the Shenzhou V spacecraft took China's first taikonaut on a trip thoroughly rehearsed during four unmanned precursor missions.1 Within China, a publicity campaign was carefully crafted to bring interest and national pride to a peak at the time of the event. Worldwide, media attention was considerable. Prelaunch speculation about the implications of the Chinese manned space program ranged from dubbing it a stunt to speculation about a new space race, to angst over its potential military significance.

Postlaunch, China has reveled in its success internally and accepted accolades from world leaders. What comes next, however, remains uncertain. Although the People's Liberation Army Daily proclaimed on launch day, "The whole world will remember the Chinese name Yang Liwei," that has not proven to be the case in the United States, at least not initially.2 Indeed Yang's flight was almost a nonevent for Americans, among whom it was unable to compete for public attention with other priorities, from the war in Iraq to the baseball playoffs. Clearly, however, external players, especially the United States, will significantly influence the future path of China's space program. This is especially true given the anticipated plans to reinvigorate the U.S. manned space exploration program. What the United States plans to do is important, but in the context of geostrategic politics how is even more important. While a space race is not a foregone conclusion, it is a possibility.

In this game of Wei Qi, the next move goes to the United States, which has three basic options. It can do nothing, which equates to sending congratulations and then continuing a policy that has excluded China from cooperative space efforts. This option would likely result in China's setting its own course in space and working with countries other than the United States. Alternatively, the United States can throw down the gauntlet and commence with a new manned space race, announcing unilateral plans and forcing China into a pace it likely cannot afford. Or the United States can initiate an incremental program of space cooperation among China, itself, and other international partners. This option has the potential to reinvigorate the American manned space program and shape the future direction of China's space efforts. It is important to remember too that while Wei Qi involves two players, and while this discussion focuses on the United States and China, there are other players simultaneously involved, interacting with both countries as well. This complication both expands and influences the options of the United States and China, and it means that Washington's next move will be significant on the larger geostrategic gameboard.


How Washington wants U.S.-China relations to evolve is far from clear. After the Cold War, the United States began looking around for the "next enemy" to prepare for-the security community judiciously and appropriately planning for the future. As the only country of sufficient size and resources to become potentially a peer competitor, and the largest remaining communist country, China succeeded the Soviet Union almost by default. With China pursuing an ambitious space program built utilizing dual-use technologies, and space being an area considered by the United States as critical to its own strategic future, competition in space quickly emerged as an area of possible, indeed likely, contention. …

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