“Countdown begins for China’s man on moon,” the Shanghai Daily crowed on December 30. Beijing had just released a white paper detailing the country’s Five-Year Plan for its space program, including a manned lunar landing. It would be the first time that humans set foot on the moon since 1972.
Yet despite the fanfare which accompanied this announcement, the proposed moon landing was just one component of China’s five-year plan for its space program, and not the most consequential at that. The white paper’s main objectives also included constructing an orbiting space station before the end of the decade; building a satellite network to rival the US GPS system; and exploring planets, asteroids and the sun.
Among these lofty ambitions, it is the most humble-sounding goal – developing a satellite network – that appears to be of the most immediate importance.
Bird’s eye view
China’s satellite program has been progressing at a furious speed. The country launched a domestic GPS system, called Beidou or the “Big Dipper,” in late December. Ten satellites currently support the system; six more will be launched this year. Beidou is expected to cover the Asia-Pacific in 2012 and have global reach by 2020.
Beijing is quick to avow that this program is merely for peaceful purposes. The white paper stresses that the capabilities of these “Earth observation” satellites lie in “providing business services” and data “for economic and social development.”
The commercial and social benefits of these technologies are undeniable. So, however, is their potential for military use. With GPS and advanced technology, China’s military is better able to target precision weapons, operate unmanned drones, and, of course, conduct surveillance.
And despite its avowedly peaceful purpose, the program cannot be separated from its military potential. In fact, there are no distinct military and civilian dimensions to China’s space program – the entire program is under the aegis of the People’s Liberation Army. Excluding the white paper, details of the program are opaque; not even its total budget has been disclosed.
These developments are more or less to be expected. As China’s economy grows and advances up the value chain, it will produce more sophisticated technology that could lend itself to military application. And as a second-place military power, China has an incentive to keep others guessing at its true capacity.
Even so, it is difficult not to see advances in China’s space program as adding yet another layer in the slowly but steadily rising diplomatic and military tension in the region. The satellite system could greatly augment China’s military power, for example giving it the ability to target aircraft carriers. That would expand the country’s sphere of influence in the Pacific. China would undoubtedly welcome a tool to counterbalance US influence in the region, especially in the wake of US President Barack Obama’s renewed commitment to the Asia Pacific region in November.
Make no mistake: China may be eyeing the moon, but it is not engaged in a Cold War-era race to space. The most consequential outcomes of its space program will be played out right here on Earth.