Shortly before last month's meeting in Texas between China's president Jiang Zemin and his US counterpart George W. Bush, the American ambassador to China, Clark Randt, said relations between the two countries had "never been better."
The increased number of high-level exchanges and joint measures to combat international terrorism have gone a long way to improving ties that had become strained shortly after Bush took office early last year when he described China as a 'strategic competitor.'
In the sensitive area of Beijing's aerospace ambitions, the relationship has certainly never been an easy one. US suspicions over the military applications of China's space programme have been fuelled for years by accusations, long denied by Beijing, that the Chinese regularly sell their missile technology to states such as Iran and Pakistan. As a result, although China's commercial satellite launch platform, the Long March, was introduced as long ago as 1985, US imposed sanctions have severely limited its use by the international launch market, and especially so since 1999.
However, the recent introduction by the Chinese authorities of a new regime for controlling the export of domestic missile technology seems to indicate a new-found willingness to break this logjam. The new laws, which were published in state media on August 25, oblige Chinese companies that intend to export missile-related technology to obtain licenses from the State Council (China's cabinet) and the Central Military Commission. The laws mandate 'strict penalties' for non-compliance.
While the rule change may be in part motivated by political considerations, China is hoping that its implementation will also bring an end to US technology export control regulations that currently prohibit the launch of American satellites, or any other satellites containing US technology, on a Chinese rocket.
Over the past four years, this ban has resulted in major losses of revenue for the Long March programme, which the Chinese would like to market as a low-cost alternative to France's Ariane, or the Delta and Atlas launchers offered by US companies Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. Although, according to official Chinese figures, a total of 27 foreign satellites have been launched by China since 1985 (12 of them American), there have been none for US clients since 1998, and only three for foreign companies of any kind in the past four years. At a cost of some US$70m per launch, the Chinese are thought to make huge profits from launches, due to their comparatively low overheads.
Up to a point, China has managed to mitigate damage caused by the US ban by striking up alliances with foreign satellite makers, such as Alcatel, for launch and satellite construction services. Indeed, European satellite manufacturers have been the real beneficiaries of the cumbersome US export controls, which also apply – though not as strictly – to the export of US satellite technology anywhere in the world. Over the past few years, this has caused many satellite operators to go elsewhere for the construction and launch of their spacecraft, with the result that foreign launch vehicles, in particular Ariane, today dominate the satellite launch industry, while satellite makers such as Alcatel and Astrium have enjoyed large increases in market share.
However, as far as the Chinese launch market is concerned, the main impact of the US embargo has been to starve it of funding, in particular for its plans to develop its next generation of heavy-duty lifters. These include the Long March 2EA, designed to hoist 12- to 14-ton low-orbit payloads (compared with the current 9.5-ton maximum), and also the Long March 5-5.0 heavy launcher, originally slated for introduction in 2008, which will feature a 23-ton low-orbit payload, rising to 40 tons with the addition of strap-on boosters. Development of these new launch vehicles is important to China for two reasons. First, because the current global trend towards bigger and heavier satellites has resulted in the need for more powerful launchers, such as the newly introduced Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles.
Second, because China will need these new models if it is to realise its ambitious plans for a manned spaceflight programme. These plans are currently well advanced. The Chinese have already completed three test flights for a manned mission, and a further one, code-named Shenzhou-IV, is slated to take place at the beginning of next year, followed by the real thing soon after.
Manned space station
And that will be only the beginning. The government first announced plans for a manned space station as long ago as 1992. Further details of the programme were also contained in a technical report published at a Beijing conference in 1999 by China's chief manned spaceflight engineer, Wang Yongzhi, although it offered no timetable for construction. China has also suggested that join the International Space Station project, although this has reportedly been given short shrift by the Americans, apparently for political reasons.
Beyond that, Chinese officials have mooted a number of other plans, ranging from a Chinese-designed space shuttle to a moon landing, and even the construction of a lunar base. Although analysts consider any of these latter programmes to be beyond China's technological, and probably financial, capacity, they nevertheless demonstrate that Beijing's plans to develop a manned space programmeare serious.
China can launch components sufficient for a small space facility with the current crop of lifters. However, anything beyond, say, 12 tons would require the development of new technology. Manned lunar missions would need an altogether more advanced workhorse than those currently available – such as a rocket equivalent to the huge US Saturn V vehicle used in the Apollo programme, capable of hoisting some 118 tons into low-earth orbit. This would take many years to develop, and would be enormously expensive. The cashflow that would be generated by a thriving domestic satellite launch industry would therefore provide an important source of funds for China's space ambitions.
The prospects of a change in the US export control regime, however, appear at best mixed. On the one hand, there is a growing domestic lobby for abolition or amendment of the rules, especially among US satellite makers. A report by the Washington- based Center for Strategic and International Studies in April this year, for example, stated that "restrictions on satellite technology transfers have backfired… and now do more damage to the US satellite industry than they do to foreign space programs." It accused the State Department, the current regulator, of imposing "overbroad restrictions that damage US national security."
But that is not the government's only concern. According to Philip McAllister, director of US aerospace consulting firm Futron, the Chinese initiative is seen in Washington as a "necessary but not sufficient step." Authorities want to see real evidence of compliance before making any reciprocal concessions. In addition, he adds, the "easing of restrictions is unlikely in the near term due to the current political climate post-September 11."
In addition, there is a growing consensus that the American position is influenced by considerations other than just strategic or foreign policy concerns. As Greg Lucas, a project manager at Futron, says: "An important subtext to this, in a climate of intense worldwide competition in the satellite launch industry, is that the US can protect its own industry from cut-rate competitors such as China by maintaining export control barriers." That being so, the US may well be intent on maintaining sanctions no matter how much Beijing is prepared to offer in return.