The recent news that the People’s Republic of China has launched its fifth manned space mission – during which three astronauts will spend fifteen days in space, including twelve days at the Tiangong 1, a space station prototype – created a flurry of news.
As a result, this is a natural time to examine the Chinese space program and discern its true purposes. While the media frenzy over China’s manned space program is understandable, the true impact of Chinese space capabilities is best understood in economic and military terms. When the Chinese expand their launch capabilities, they are preparing to play a larger role in the thriving commercial satellite launch business and are improving their ability to launch a satellite network to support military operations around the globe. While both are less headline grabbing than Chinese astronauts conducting experiments in a space station, they are more significant for the future course of geopolitics.
Manned space programs always have had tremendous sway over the public’s imagination, and China’s space program is no exception. Indeed, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both were present at the launch center, shown on state television, wishing the astronauts well. China’s space program plays a very important role in Chinese national consciousness. As one of only three nations to have launched humans into space, the Chinese national space program signifies China’s ascent to the status of great power.
However, as much attention as manned space programs garner, economically and militarily, manned space programs are simply not very significant. From an economic perspective, the vast majority of commercial activity in space involves launching communications satellites – an entirely unmanned process. Similarly, satellites important for national security – communications satellites, observational satellites and navigational satellites – do not require humans in space to launch or operate.
That said, the recent Chinese mission into space nevertheless is significant when viewed in the proper context. It is indicative of an improvement in the PRC’s ability to undertake ambitious space operations. A high-profile launch such as this signals to companies wishing to place satellites in orbit, be they scientific observational satellites or telecommunications satellites, that they can rely on the Chinese. The total value of space-related products and services was approximately $165 billion in 2009, and as developing nations enter the space launch market, this number is expected only to increase over the long term. China has already begun to carve out a niche in the market selling launch services to developing nations such as Nigeria and Pakistan, and a high profile launch such as this will only draw additional attention from other countries and companies.
Additionally, in the era of modern warfare, space systems are absolutely crucial to support a nation’s capacity to wage war. Positioning satellites are necessary for military maneuvers and precision-guided strikes, communications satellites are necessary to coordinate action between different branches of the military for joint operations and reconnaissance satellites are important for gathering intelligence – to pick just three obvious applications. Chinese military planners were shocked by the rapid defeat of Iraqi military forces in the Gulf War, and took away important lessons about the value of information technology such as robust satellite networks for conducting military operations. The U.S. Department of Defense has noted increased Chinese military satellite launches in their annual report on China’s military. The recent launch indicates that their capacity to launch and maintain the network of military satellites required for a global military presence is as robust as ever.
Space may well be the final frontier, but it is one with very concrete ramifications for those of us here on planet earth. China’s recent launch indisputably has ramifications far beyond its immediate significance, and as China continues its geopolitical ascent, its space activities will likely play an increasingly large role in that ascent, both economically and militarily.