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China's Ambitions in Space

M V Rappai is a China analyst working with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
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  • February 19, 2007

    It may be a mere coincidence that the People's Daily, official mouth piece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), decided to carry two pieces on China's ongoing space programme on its website on February 7, 2007. The first, a news item announcing China's decision to build its fourth satellite-launching centre in its Hainan island province, and the second, an unsigned opinion piece, “Why does China want to probe moon?” These two news items are significant for they came within a month after China shot down on January 11 one of its aged satellites and proved its ability to use an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon successfully. The satellite was destroyed using a medium range ballistic missile, making China the third country, after the United States of America and Russia, to prove such a capability.

    China's decision to set up a more modern launch facility shows its ambitious future plans. At present, China has three satellite launching centres located in Xichang in southwest Sichuan province, Jiuchuan in northwest Gansu province and Taiyuan in north Shanxi province, respectively. The new facility, located close to the equator, will enable the launch of larger payloads in future, thus enhancing its space agency's ability to be a more attractive commercial launcher of satellites in the world. Explaining the advantages of this new launch site, one expert stated, “the actual load efficiency will increase by 7.4 percent” at the new Hainan facility, “compared with the Xichang, Sichuan, base centred at 27 degrees north latitude. The new base can add 300 Kg more rocket load, saving six million US dollars in load expenses (cost on rocket load is about 20,000 US dollars per kg in the world).” China would thus be able to make significant gains in both the commercial and strategic spheres of space activity.

    The opinion piece referred to above, on the moon probe, briefly explains China's future intentions and how it hopes to take advantage of its various planned activities on the moon. The moon, for example, is being seen as a potential energy resource. The opinion piece explains that, “the sunlight radiation energy that reaches the moon sphere can generate approximately 12 trillion kilowatts annually and, if three solar power plants with parallel connection are put up on the moon, the humankind is sure to have potential stable solar energy.” It then goes on to explain the possibility of using helium-3, trapped in the moon soil, as a potential source for future energy needs. While some of these may be only at the conceptual level of various scientific studies, yet the point is that China is thinking strategically about the potential future uses of space.

    One of the main impacts of China's ASAT weapon test has already been felt. Serious players in space like the United States have already started talking about the need to avoid the weaponisation of outer space for the first time. Till recently, the concerned authorities in the United States, especially some in the current Bush administration, used to talk in boastful terms about its ability for “full spectrum dominance” in outer space. In 1997, Keith Hall, the then Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, stated that, “with regard to space dominance, we have it, we like it, and we're going to keep it.” A year before this the Commander-in-Chief of the US Space Command was even more specific, “we will engage terrestrial targets someday - ships, airplanes, land targets - from space…. We are going to fight in space. We are going to fight from space and we are going to fight into space.” However, after China tested its ASAT weapon, US analysts began to use a different language. More serious analysts talked of the need for diplomatic efforts to keep off weapons of mass destruction from outer space. More ardent supporters of the non-proliferation regime continued to talk about the dangers posed by the “thousands of smithereens of debris” left over by the destroyed Chinese satellite, though they had no explanation for the existing debris in outer space caused by similar US and Soviet tests earlier.

    In contrast to these high sounding concerns, the official reaction from the Bush Administration a week of the test was more conciliatory and diplomatic. At a State Department press briefing on January 19, 2007, deputy spokesman Tom Casey said: “we certainly are concerned by any effort, by any nation that would be geared towards developing weapons or other military activities in space… we don't want to see a situation where there is any militarization of space.” He then spoke about the need to ensure “peaceful use of space” and expressed concern about the threat to “modern life as we know it”, because “countries throughout the world are dependant on space based technologies, weather satellites, communications satellites and other devices.”

    This is also a matter of concern for India and New Delhi has to maintain all available options to protect its interests. It is all right for senior functionaries in government to speak about the need to keep outer space weapons free. The reality, however, is that the 1967 “Outer Space Treaty” bans only the deployment of Weapons of Mass Destruction in outer space. Advanced military powers are already using outer space for many a military related application. As of now India has 16 different satellites in orbit, and it is also in the market for launching satellites on a commercial basis. In the years to come, the country's dependence on its space assets, for predicting weather to directing advanced PGMs and missiles, is bound to grow. It is time Indian strategic planners began to think of ways to protect the country's vital interests in outer space.