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The Significance of Shenzhou-VII

Jagannath P. Panda is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 16, 2008

    On October 7, 2008, the PLA Daily reported that the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the four general departments of the Chinese military celebrated in great style the success of the Shenzhou-VII manned space flight mission. Shenzhou-VII, carrying three astronauts (Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng) returned successfully on September 28 after conducting a historic spacewalk mission. This success made China the third country after the United States and Russia to conduct a space walk mission.

    While the return of Shenzhou-VII impressed many about China’s competence and progress in space science and technology, doubts persist about its military implications. Inferences have been drawn about the possible military applications of China’s space programme, its advances in missile defence countermeasures, as well as in reconnaissance and surveillance. Further, speculation abounds in many Asian and Western countries whether the success of Shenzhou-VII signals Chinese military preparedness in the field of “space warfare”. A series of Chinese successes in space, ranging from the ASAT test to Change-I and the space walk mission have compelled many to review the course of China’s space plans. Indeed, given the Chinese military’s control over the country’s space programme, debate about ‘China as a space power’ both in civil and military terms are quite natural.

    In the Chinese perspective, the Shenzhou-VII success implies two things. Politically, the space walk is a matter of national pride and imbued with “political symbolism”, given that it came in the wake of China’s impressive hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Technically, it signifies a concerted space plan. While the timing of the Shenzhou-VII mission was tied up with the country’s National day celebration on October 1, it followed the goals of “scientific development” advocated by President Hu Jintao. This approach is reflected in the Chinese White Paper titled China’s Space Activities in 2006, which states:

    “The aims of China’s space activities are: to explore outer space… to meet the demands of economic construction, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to raise the scientific quality of the Chinese people, protect China’s national interests and rights, and build up the comprehensive national strength.”

    In political terms, the Shenzhou-VII mission is a great success for the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) as well, which will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of its ascent to power in 2009. If the party is to preserve its legitimacy at a time of increasing tide of democracy and the fading of communist ideology in China, then a grand project like Shenzhou-VII may certainly be seen as providing a unifying cause. The party needs public acclaim that is attendant to such a prestigious project. Rightly, the party also celebrated this success.

    Terming it as a “great pride”, many Chinese experts view Shenzhou-VII as a preliminary exercise which holds the key to China’s future aim of building an orbiting station. State media in China reported the success of Shenzhou-VII as the “most critical step” in China’s “three-step” space programme: (a) sending a human into orbit, (b) docking spacecraft together while forming a small laboratory, and (c) building a large space station. Aerospace experts contend that the success of the first of these phases is sure to fast-track the country’s development in science and technology. Officials have tended to promote and highlight these scientific developments from the civilian perspective, while at the same time downplaying the military dimensions.

    Whatever perspective the Chinese may wish to portray, China’s concerted space efforts in recent times has come under intense scrutiny especially after the January 2007 ASAT test which left a lasting global impact. This has to be seen in the context of the fact that civilian technological advances could easily be put to military use, particularly at a time when space power has become a pre-condition to leveraging air power in modern warfare. In fact, China’s military-centric space programme has been in news since January 2000 when it launched its first military communications satellite as part of the PLA combat-and-control network. Since then, its space efforts have been linked with its military modernisation programme. In this regard, China’s 2006 Defence White Paper suggests that “…scientific and technological projects, such as manned space flights and the Lunar Probe Project, are being carried out…combining military and civilian needs and to bring about overall improvements in defense-related science and technology.”

    To execute these proposed plans, the 11th five-year national plan released on May 10, 2007 sets a platform for achieving some of these hidden military objectives through advances in space technology. For instance, China aims to make a bigger stride in the aerospace industry, and particularly new generation carrier rockets research programme is a highlight of this plan. However, the drive is to develop “dual-use technologies” rather relying purely on military technologies, thus simultaneously achieving economic development and military modernisation. In this context, China’s mega-space plan is reflected in its ever-growing defence spending, which, even according to official statistics, has risen by around 15 percent every year since 1990.

    Given the lack of transparency in China’s actual defence budget, it is difficult to approximate the exact figure of its investment in space. But the current five-year plan has made a special allocation for the fields of high-technology, ‘IT solutions’ and space research. It has also highlighted the importance of “non-governmental investment in the space sector.” Following this, the Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defence had proposed steps like manned space flight and lunar exploration along with other major initiatives like a lunar orbiting mission to acquire three-dimensional pictures, hard-X ray modulation telescope, research on a solar telescope, etc. Economists estimate that China has already created business opportunities worth 120 billion yuan (US $18 billion) from its space technology applications. It seems that for economic conditions to remain robust, space expenditure, whether for military or civil purposes, remains an important factor in China’s space policy. In fact, the Chief designer of the Shenzhou-VII spacecraft has noted that “China’s space exploration started late and the pace/scale of its future space plan [is] in line with country’s economic capacity vis-à-vis science & technology.”

    China aims to set up a space station in 2020 and a “simple” space laboratory by 2011. On October 11, Xinhua reported that the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) plans to launch the first satellite of the Fengyun-4 (FY-4) series, the second generation meteorological satellites. It is also reported that the Shenzhou VIII & Shenzhou IX missions will be unmanned to test docking technology. The totality of these initiatives centres on the theme of industrializing space technology and developing future space research. Experts feel that these plans reveal a Chinese desire to establish supremacy in space technology and the strategic goal of preparing for possible future space warfare. It is feared that the planned space station would serve as a repair base for Chinese military satellites.

    The achievement of Shenzhou-VII is a reminder of China’s growing confidence and capabilities in space. Though China’s space effort started with the establishment of the Missile and Rocket Research Institute in 1956, the ‘manned space’ effort began in the early 1990s. After almost a decade and a half, the Chinese endeavour is to become ‘self-reliant’ and drive space research activities independently. China’s long-term objectives are to establish a strategic balance with countries like United States and Russia, and to break their monopoly in the utilisation of space. The success of the Shenzhou project is a significant milestone in this regard.

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