This CiCM Insight looks at the Chinese Space Programme and its relevance in geopolitics, as well as focusing on China’s space diplomacy and China’s privatisation of the space program.

The space programme of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is overseen by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). China's space programme has managed to create and launch thousands of artificial satellites, crewed spaceflights, and an indigenous space station till now. Chinese President XI Jinping has also expressed China's intentions to explore the Moon, Mars, and the rest of the Solar System. This is seen both by China and the USA as a part of their strategic competition.

 History of China’s Space Programme

  • The Chinese space programme began in the 1950s when the country started collaborating with the USSR. Initially, both countries began engagement through a cooperative technology exchange program. However, the programme was stopped because of the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. Not deterred by the split, China developed the heaviest satellite in the world (Dong Fang Hong, 173 kgs) at that time and successfully launched it on April 24, 1970.
  • The Chinese space programme is one of the most successful programmes today. It launched the Chang'e 3 Moon Lander in 2013 and also sent Yutu 2 to study the far side of the moon. The Yutu 2 mission is very successful because it has captured images of the areas that were not previously visible and revealed analysis of a substance present on the other side of the moon. China was also successful in launching its own space station, the Tiangong in 2021. It will boost China’s indigenous research in space and allow China to bypass the US sanctions imposed regarding the use of the International Space Station.

Geopolitical Angle of China’s Space Programme

  • Space programmes of different countries have been intricately linked to geopolitical competition since the Cold War era. Moreover, China has begun privatizing the space sector to diversify the economic opportunities, quite similar to the US privatization policy in the space sector. This will also help China attract other countries to use Chinese space advancements for promoting their own space programmes. Along with this, China has also resorted to various other applications of space to spread its global influence.
  • China has been able to create its satellite navigation system called as BeiDou, which began its operations in the early 2000s. The early BeiDou-1 and BeiDou- 2 systems had a limited reach and provided services only in the Indo-Pacific region. Later in 2015, BeiDou-3 was launched and it became fully operational by 2020. The BeiDou is a critical component of the Chinese space sector and has a constellation of 35 satellites. It can provide global coverage for both military and civil use. Besides commercial applications, the technology has multiple applications in military forces, particularly in remote places.
  • China soon capitalized on the BeiDou system and has provided services to nearly 165 countries. Many of the services are being provided for free under the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, Russia has collaborated with China (GLONASS and BeiDou) to compete with Europe's Galileo and the USA's GPS in terms of reach and accuracy. Additionally, China already provides and sells weapons to over 50 countries worth billions of dollars. By providing access to the highly-accurate BeiDou systems, China can push for sales of more high- precision weapons in the coming years.
  • Besides civilian usage, China has also been pushing for development of the space sector to advance its military capabilities. China created the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) Space Systems Department in 2015 which combined all entities involved in space, cyber and electronic warfare under a single command. PLASSF has been tasked with developing China's space infrastructure and integrating it closely with the entire military operations of the PLA.
  • Moreover, various space technologies have been developed for early warning (against ballistic missiles and any other attacks) and surveillance systems. These include Electro-Optical (EO) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors. Russia has helped China to develop these early warning systems. China has also developed capabilities to destroy soft and hard targets to limit the space capabilities of its enemies. These measures include electronic jamming, cyberattacks, high-energy lasers and Anti Satellite (ASAT) missiles. However, the Chinese military space program is shrouded in much secrecy. China is trying to displace the US in space technology and has been integrating the use of space technology in military branches.

 A Tool to Give a Boost to The Industries

  • China Daily reported that the Chinese space programme has helped achieve more than 4000 technological advancements in various industries directly or indirectly related to the space sector. The advancement in these technologies has helped to drive innovation in different sectors like microelectronics, machinery manufacturing and communications. Looking into other industries that have benefitted is the heat-resistant base technology of manned spacecraft. Moreover, space breeder technology has helped generate more than 200 billion yuan ($30 billion) as of May 2022. The technology was able to generate significant revenue as it was employed in food processing, bacteria cultivation and biopharmaceutical industries. The innovation in space technology has helped the country grow economically and contributed to food security and environmental protection.
  • The advancement of intelligent industrial control systems can be encouraged by improving the research and development processes for technologies linked to controls, measurements, image processing, and other components used in rockets, spacecraft, and space stations. Not only has it helped large industries to grow, but the advancement of space technologies has also helped improve the citizens' lives. During natural disasters, satellite remote-sensing is used by various departments at the provincial and national levels to monitor the situation.

China's Heavenly Palace (Tiangong)

  • Seeking to enhance its scientific and technological innovations through space, China had begun building its space station to the likes of the International Space Station. The Chinese Space Station (CSS), the Tiangong, is used to support China's long-term goals for space exploration, including various missions to the Moon and Mars.
  • The Tiangong has three critical modules. In April 2021, Tianhe (the living quarters) was launched into space. On July 25 2022, the Wentian (lab) was launched into space successfully. The Mengtian was successfully launched on October 31, 2022 and it was docked to the Tiangong after 13 hours. The CSS will have capabilities similar to the International Space Station and will be able to provide refueling power to the Chinese survey space telescope Xuantian.
  • The funding for China's space program and political backing have increased over the past few decades. The Chinese leadership has advocated using space technologies to increase its overall national strength. Moreover, the leadership believes that manned space flights are means of garnering international prestige and booting national pride. President Xi Jinping envisioned China's aspirations to become the world leader in space exploration on China's first National Day of Space Flight on April 24, 2016. On the same day, China's National Space Administration's ex-director stated that space industry projects outlined in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) aimed to make China a major power. As per the 14th Five-Year Plan, China intends to explore the construction of cutting-edge information infrastructure by accelerating the disposition of satellites, improving global coverage and implementing the major Beidou industrialization projects.

  • It is widely known that the scientific experiments conducted on the ISS greatly benefit humanity. However, Chinese researchers and taikonauts have been denied the opportunity to participate in these researches as the US and other nations have blacklisted China from space cooperation. A successfully launched CSS would ensure that China would have its platform to conduct groundbreaking research and enhance China's independent innovative capability. Moreover, the Tiangong would be an alternative for several countries because ISS is scheduled to be deorbited in a few years. Taking this opportunity, China announced in 2018 that all the members of the UNO were welcome to cooperate with China. In fact, the European Space Agency has already begun considering cooperating with China and looking at the possibilities for a joint venture.

China’s Space Diplomacy

  • With China's upcoming lunar missions and deep venturing into the solar system, it has invited proposals for its Chang'e 7 lunar south pole landing and orbiting mission. Chang'e 6 has already seen multi-country participation where Pakistan, Sweden, Italy and France have participated. Moreover, since 2016, China has signed more than 46 space cooperation agreements or MOUs with 19 countries, regions and four international organizations including the EU, ASEAN, African Union and many more. China has already built satellites with several countries like Nigeria (NigCom-1, 2007), Venezuela (VeneSat-1, 2008), Pakistan (PakSat-1R, 2011), Bolivia (Tupak Katari, 2014) and Laos (LaoSat-1, 2015).

China's Privatisation of The Space Program

  • Private space companies in China have begun taking over some aspects of the space program. China has actively encouraged private companies to invest in the space sector. Backed by policies, capital and technology, the private sector has enjoyed a strong push in the past seven years. China has implemented several policies to increase government procurement of spacecraft, improve infrastructural development, and strengthen military-civilian integration to encourage the growth of the commercial aerospace industry through market-oriented measures.
  • China's commercial aerospace industry experienced exponential growth from 2015 to 2020, with the market size increasing from 376.4 billion yuan ($59.09 billion) to 1.02 trillion yuan ($160.13 billion) at a compound growth rate of 22.04 per cent, according to China Astronautics Association for Quality (CAAQ). From 2015 to 2020, more than ten commercial rocket companies were established in China, specializing in various aspects of rocket manufacturing and operation.
  • The United States has accused China of militarising space (China has accused the US as well) and of using civilian facilities for surveillance and intelligence. However, the European Space Agency (ESA) and China have collaborated and exchanged data collected from European and Chinese satellites to advance earth science since 2004. ESA believes that the exchange should work as it is for science and not for military purposes. Thus, China’s space programme has received a mixed response from the global community. In the coming years, China will continue to advance its space programme in its attempt to create an alternative system to the Western system. However, the world must ensure that China does not militarize the space domain to achieve its geopolitical objectives.


Parimal Saraf is a former research intern at Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA), New Delhi, India. He is pursuing his Master's in International Studies from Christ University, Bengaluru. He is keenly interested in several conflicts occurring in the Sahel region, East Asia and Latin America and wishes to research their impact on businesses and the economy. LinkedIn Profile:

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