Over the past few years, the People's Republic of China has achieved remarkable strides in the sphere of lunar exploration and the broader context of its space programme. This paper seeks to critically analyse the manner in which China's advancements in its space programme and lunar explorations fortify its political and economic stature, thus influencing the global equilibrium of power. This exploration raises the question: How is China leveraging its space programme to augment its global influence?
With the conclusion of the space race, the American populace's interest in space exploration has gradually diminished, a sentiment mirrored by the shifting principles and priorities of US policymakers concerning their national space programme. Enjoying a position of unrivalled dominance in space technology, the United States remained complacent in the absence of competition, until it was confronted with the technological advancement of another burgeoning power in the East.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping articulated a vision to establish China as the world's preeminent space power by the year 2045. He stated, "The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger. With the development of space programs, the Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space."1 Xi Jinping's pronouncements embody China's aspiration to be acknowledged as a leading power in space exploration. The attainment of this stature not only bolsters national pride, but also enhances the country's identity as an innovative and technologically sophisticated nation. This underscores China's 'technonationalist' approach towards modernisation.2
A Historical Perspective
This vision resonates with historical precedents in Chinese history, notably the Mao era, when an economically challenged, predominantly agrarian nation prioritised the development of ballistic technologies. Mao's tenure was pivotal in establishing the foundational technological capabilities, exemplified by the development of the Dongfeng-1, the first ballistic missile with an approximate range of 550 kilometers, based on the Soviet R-2 missile, itself an evolution of the German V-2 missile. Its development, initiated in the late 1950s, culminated in a successful test in 1960. Further, in 1966, the Dongfeng-2 nuclear missile was tested, marking a significant progression.3
Similar to Xi Jinping, Mao perceived the development of space and missile technologies as a mechanism to bolster national pride and fortify China's position in the global ideological contest during the Cold War. The broadening scope of this struggle, in light of geopolitical
shifts and ideological divergence with the Soviet Union, compelled China to focus on autonomy in its space programme, particularly satellite technology. Intensifying border disputes in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the substantial, undefendable Sino-Soviet border necessitated enhancing military capabilities, including developing reconnaissance satellites.
In 1970, China successfully launched its first satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1, a significant milestone that drew global attention to China's burgeoning capabilities, despite its relative lag behind the US and USSR. The subsequent development of remote sensing and electronic reconnaissance satellites further fortified China's military intelligence.4
Despite Mao Zedong's pioneering work on space and technology, his vision may not have been as comprehensive and ambitious as Xi Jinping's current plans, it is clear that he recognised the strategic importance of these areas for China's national development and global position. After all, achieving success in space exploration would demonstrate the superiority of China's socialist system, moreover ensuring the sovereignty and security of its own territory.5 It is worth pointing out a few historical examples which, to my mind, lead China's leaders to view sovereignty, security and technology in the same domain, and these seem to me to be linked to historical memory and the emotions of injustice and revenge for the period of humiliation following the opium wars. It was because of its isolation and technological backwardness that China suffered defeats at the hands of foreign powers, lost territory and was forced to accept unequal treaties. During the Qing Dynasty, China faced considerable internal turmoil, including widespread corruption, weak governance and internal rebellions. This instability hampered the country's ability to modernise and invest in technological progress. Unlike China, Japan experienced rapid modernisation, known as the Meiji Restoration, which transformed the country into a major industrial and military power. This modernisation included the introduction of Western technology, military strategies and industrial methods, which contributed to Japan's technological advantage over China during the Second Sino-Japanese War and helped Japan win the First Sino-Japanese War. Thus, it seems to me that these events served as a timeless reminder for the Chinese leadership and played a crucial role in shaping China's national development strategy and its emphasis on technological progress, self-sufficiency and modernisation as a guarantor of its own security.
US-China Dynamics and the Ascendancy of China
As China ascended to global power prominence in the early 21st century, friction with the United States escalated. The strategic rivalry permeated various domains, encompassing trade, military, and significantly, space. Acknowledging its technological disparity with the West, China employed asymmetric strategies to ensure robust competition. The creation of anti-satellite weaponry exemplifies this approach.
On January 11, 2007, China executed a successful anti-satellite system (ASAT) test, destructing one of its own obsolescent Fengyun-1C meteorological satellites using a ballistic missile. This test, conducted unexpectedly by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), incited international disapproval. Contextualize this event: it preceded the U.S. release of its National Space Policy by mere months, a policy highlighting space's importance to national security, economic prosperity, and scientific research while underscoring the potential threat to its civilian and military space assets due to other countries developing ASAT capacities.6 Consequently, China's exhibition of its capacity to obliterate satellites in low-Earth orbit significantly impacted the U.S. security landscape. This event marked a turning point, transforming the theoretical threat of the near future into a grim present reality. Hence, this event could be viewed as a metaphorical "cold shower" for Americans, starkly highlighting the susceptibility of satellite systems to attacks and underscoring the urgency for enhanced international cooperation and regulation of space activities.
Another important asymmetric step was the reorientation of the Chinese space industry towards market orientation and external exports. One of the main advantages of Chinese aerospace products and launch services has been their cost competitiveness. The Chinese space industry can offer more affordable alternatives due to lower labour costs and a different pricing model. This cost advantage attracts countries and companies looking for low-cost options to launch satellites and other space-related services. In addition, China's space industry has adopted a "package deal" business model where one contract includes a set of services, operations and equipment in the form of satellites.7 Although, as I said earlier, Chinese space technology cannot yet match the most advanced Western systems, they have nevertheless made some significant advances in progress, which has improved the reliability of their space programme, thus further strengthening the confidence of potential customers in Chinese aerospace products and services.
China's aerospace products and launch services have thus found a growing market among developing countries seeking to build their space capabilities. By offering affordable options and assistance in the development of space infrastructure, China has successfully positioned itself as a key partner for countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America which has helped it establish strong economic and political ties with countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, Algeria, etc. By cooperating with these partners in space infrastructure, remote sensing and satellite launching, China is expanding its strategic influence and projecting "soft power" on the world stage. It is worth mentioning that within the framework of the BRI, China is involved in numerous infrastructure projects, including those related to space. China assists in the construction of satellite ground stations, remote sensing systems and other space facilities, which allows these countries to take advantage of space technology for various tasks, such as communication, weather forecasting and disaster management. China's
investment in BRI space infrastructure projects has direct strategic implications. These primarily help provide China with access to critical space assets and resources beyond its borders, such as satellite ground stations or remote sensing data that could be valuable for military and intelligence purposes. All-in-all, such a strategy allows China to balance the influence of countries such as the US in different regions and continents, while facilitating cooperation in different sectors by expanding its access to rare natural resources. By demonstrating its technological prowess and willingness to cooperate with other countries in developing their space capabilities, China is building a positive overall image and reputation on the world stage.8
In summary, China's asymmetric strategy serves multiple purposes in the global arena, allowing it to challenge the US's hegemony and assert its own vision of a multipolar world order. China successfully advances its strategic interests by increasing its influence and presence in various regions, fostering cooperation in different sectors, and aligning with its broader economic goals. Furthermore, China's partnerships and investments in space projects worldwide contribute to its military capabilities, providing access to vital space and intelligence resources beyond its political borders. This enhances China's strategic monitoring and information-gathering capabilities, strengthening its position on the global stage. Finally, China's development and testing of anti-satellite (ASAT) technology have demonstrated its ability to challenge US dominance without directly engaging in a costly conflict. This asymmetric approach is quite effective in protecting China's interests while slowly trying to shift the balance of power on the international stage away from the established status quo.
China has historically been in a catch-up position, striving to mitigate its deficiencies through ingenious asymmetric approaches. However, a pivotal transformation in the nation's space development emerged later. It is important to revisit Xi Jinping's remarks, as mentioned earlier in the essay, which established an ambitious objective for "bigger strides to explore further into space."9 Five years following this daring proclamation, the People's Republic of China astonished the global community by announcing its plan to create a permanent lunar base, subsequently emerging as a prominent leader in space exploration.
China's decision to establish the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the 2030s essentially signals the commencement of its ambition to spearhead human space exploration. The project aims to construct a scientific complex on the Moon to facilitate diverse scientific experiments, resource utilization, and lunar surface exploration, ultimately promoting a sustainable human presence on the Moon. Notably, China, which typically does not heavily depend on partnerships for space projects, opted to collaborate with Russia on this occasion. The partnership between China and Russia in the ILRS project underscores their shared interest in challenging the United States' supremacy in space exploration. By joining forces,
the two nations can present a united front, fostering a more multipolar world order in the realm of space activities. These concerns, in my view, are well-founded, as emphasized by Ye Peijian, the head of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, who recently asserted, "The universe is an ocean, the Moon is the Diaoyu Island [Senkaku Islands, claimed by Japan], Mars is the Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines]. If we don't go now when we can, future generations will blame us. If others go, then they will take over, and you won't be able to go even if you wanted to. This is reason enough."10
From these remarks, it can be inferred that Beijing seeks to establish a space law model based on its vision, fortifying its position and technology in space through initiatives such as lunar exploration. The collaboration with Russia on the lunar station project holds significant geopolitical implications, as both nations advocate a new multipolar world order. Russia, in particular, consistently emphasizes the emergence of a new reality and the necessity for a new "Yalta."11 The lunar exploration project could signify a turning point in global dynamics, especially considering the aggressive and expansive approaches of China and Russia in various international conflicts.
China's exclusive, somewhat monopolistic access to boundless space resources, energy, technology, and logistics could potentially enable it to wield economic and political influence on Earth, while utilising its lunar potential for military purposes. There are valid concerns regarding the Celestial Empire's lunar expansion; parallels can be drawn with international maritime law and China's aggressive behaviour in international waters. In these waters, Chinese vessels engage in illegal fishing and environmental destruction within other nations' exclusive economic zones, employing both military and commercial vessels. This strategy seeks to establish territorial claims and assert effective control over disputed regions, thereby raising concerns about China's future intentions in the comparatively less regulated and loophole-ridden outer space.12
The United States, conversely, is apprehensive about these Chinese ambitions as they pose a direct challenge to the existing world order. Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator, stated, "The Chinese space program is also a military space program. They are very aggressive and very good, and much of that success has materialized in the last few years."13 It's worth noting that for the first time, the US finds itself in a catch-up role and has accelerated its own space exploration efforts, including the announcement of the Artemis program in 2019 to maintain its leadership in space. The US established the Artemis Accords format to reinforce its
alliances with other space powers and foster international cooperation on lunar exploration and other space activities, as an alternative to the partnership between China and Russia. Consequently, this has marked a new space race, and only time will tell what the outcome will be and whether China will succeed in shifting the balance of power and assuming the lead in this rivalry.
Claudín, Carmen. "A New Yalta: Putin's Obsession." CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs), January 2022. Accessed May 8, 2023. https://www.cidob.org/en/ publications/publication_series/opinion/2022/a_new_yalta_putin_s_obsession.
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No author provided. "South China Sea dispute: Huge Chinese 'fishing fleet' alarms Philippines." BBC News, March 21, 2021. Accessed May 8, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/ news/world-asia-56474847.
Nyczepir, Dave. "NASA won’t rush Mars mission over U.S. 'space race' with China." FedScoop, July 21, 2021. Accessed May 8, 2023. https://fedscoop.com/nasa-mars-space-racechina/.
Pollpeter, Kevin. "Building for the Future." In China's Information Revolution: Managing the Economic and Social Transformation, edited by Doug Guthrie, 32. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Saunders, Phillip C., and Charles D. Lutes. "China's ASAT Test: Motivations and Implications." ETH Zurich - International Relations and Security Network (ISN), June 2007. Accessed May 8, 2023. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/113985/2007-06_SR.pdf.
Sheehan, M. "China: The Long March into Space." In The International Politics of Space, 159-163. London: Routledge, 2007.
Tian, Shaohui. "Backgrounder: Xi Jinping's vision for China's space development." XinhuaNet, April 24, 2017. Accessed May 8, 2023. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/ 2017-04/24/c_136232642.htm.
Thompson, Jared Maj. "Beijing’s Troubling Space Ambitions." Foundation for Defense of Democracies, May 20, 2021. Accessed May 8, 2023. https://www.fdd.org/analysis/ 2021/05/20/beijings-troubling-space-ambitions/.