China's Manned Space Program: Sun Tzu or Apollo Redux?: Sun Tzu or Apollo Redux?

By Johnson-Freese, Joan | Naval War College Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

China's Manned Space Program: Sun Tzu or Apollo Redux?: Sun Tzu or Apollo Redux?


Johnson-Freese, Joan, Naval War College Review


China is on a fast track into space. Chinese officials have stated that a manned space launch is imminent-likely in the second half of 2003. The four launches since 1999 of the Shenzhou (Divine or Sacred Vessel) spacecraft intended to launch the taikonauts into orbit evidence substantial Chinese technical achievement and the seriousness of the program.1 Those achievements, plus pronouncements about timetables, space laboratories, shuttles, space stations, lunar bases, and now Mars missions, naturally make one wonder just what the Chinese are up to. Is there a new, twenty-first-century space race brewing? If there is, who is racing, and toward what goal? Analysis and commentary have spawned several, often one-dimensional, scenarios.

Policy and academic analyses of Chinese space activities have been limited and "stovepiped" within disciplines. With few exceptions, analyses have either focused on technical parameters or have been highly politicized as part of threat assessments, usually in the context of U.S. plans for missile defense.2 In the case of the former, though much of the Chinese program remains cloaked in secrecy due to both the nature of the Chinese system and the military aspects of the topic, considerable agreement exists among technical analysts concerning Chinese capabilities, now and potentially in the future.3 Securing consensus regarding political "intent" remains more difficult. There are analysts who feel that the pursuit of space technology can be benign and development oriented; others perceive it as inherently nefarious. That China is so large and complex that one can look there for proof of any thesis, and find it, complicates the situation.

Some observers see China's race to space as a battle with its own demons. Prestige, in this scenario, becomes the Chinese brass ring. Conquering space represents an opportunity in what China refers to as mankind's "fourth frontier" to recapture its lost legacy of technological mastery and innovation.4 Certainly, a Chinese quest for prestige is undeniable. Chinese scientists and policy makers eagerly point out that when (not if) China launches taikonauts into space, it will be only the third country in the world to have done so. No European countries can do that, or Japan either; manned space flight will belong to an exclusive club of the United States, Russia, and China. The world was dramatically and tragically reminded of the technical difficulty of piloted spaceflight, and subsequently the high level of technical achievement requisite to accomplish such, with the recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia. So, the prospective domestic, regional, and international benefits of that exclusivity are considerable. But are they enough for a country that daily faces Herculean challenges in keeping its population fed, employed, and stable and pursuing essential domestic modernization, while it spends an estimated two billion dollars annually on a space program?5

If not, the reason the Chinese are pursuing a manned space program maybe to draw attention from its military space activities, which will clearly benefit from the dual-use nature of the technology being developed. The July 2002 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China, published by the U.S. Department of Defense, stated, "While one of the strongest immediate motivations for this [China's manned space program] appears to be political prestige, China's manned space efforts almost certainly will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 time frame."6 Global recognition of the increasingly important role of space in military operations began with the unofficial proclamation of the Gulf War as "the first space war," and it has grown steadily since.7 Under a worst-case scenario, the Chinese manned efforts are merely a Trojan horse. It has already been suggested, for example, that Chinese leaders may see potential military value in Shenzhou as a reconnaissance platform. …

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