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China’s Growing Space Program and its Implications for Regional Strategic Balance

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

The Shenzhou9 spacecraft, which took off on June 16 with three Chinese astronauts aboard, is seen as a landmark achievement in China’s space program and has excited people all around the globe.

The whole world watched as the space craft carrying China’s first female astronaut docked manually with an orbiting module, inviting global praise for the nation. Hand levers were used to control Shenzhou 9 and position it to dock with the orbiting mod ule, according to Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s manned space program. Ping told reporters in Beijing that the maneu ver was “precise and perfect” and the three astronauts carried it out “calmly and skill fully.”

Zhou Jianping, the main architect of Chi na’s manned space program, told Chinese media that this successful docking will en sure that China’s spacecraft can be used as a manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. The spacecraft will be able to send human beings to space stations or space labs, bringing accolades to the Chinese gov ernment, which has invested about 35 bil lion Yuan (US$5.4 billion) from 1992 to 2011 in its manned space program. The China Manned Space Engineering Office has also announced that it is one of only three nations that have independent ly mastered the technology required for manned space missions, space walking, and orbital docking.

But China is not the one to simply sit on its laurels. It is also toying with the idea to send a man to the moon in future, and it has ambitious plans to launch another manned mission this year to replace the Tiangong 1 space station test platform. Tiangong 1 was launched last year and is said to be slated for replacement with a permanent space station around the year 2020.

Weighing about 60 tons, this permanent station is roughly the same size of NASA’s Skylab launched in 1970 and about one sixth the size of the 16nation International Space Station that is floating about 390 kilo meters above Earth’s surface while hosting a rotating international crew since Novem ber 2000.

The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft mission is China’s fourth manned mission and the country plans to join the league of Russia and the United States by sending indepen dently maintained space stations into orbit. China also is amongst very few countries that have successfully launched manned spacecraft on their own. The country start ed late in the area of space exploration but is now going full speed ahead and has al ready launched commercial satellites and put both men and missiles in space. China is marching ahead with its space programs to strengthen its position as a technological power in the world. Its march, however, is being criticized by social activ ists who think the money used for space programs could better be spent to improve the lives of people living in the country. An article in Qilu Evening News says that, despite its expensive nature, the Chinese space program will improve the daily lives of its people and is very good for the long term national interest and the common in terests of people on this planet.

A number of popular goods such as mi crowave foods and services such as weather forecasts are the result of space exploration. The article also notes that the Apollo moon landings by America cost US$240 billion but transferred into 3,000plus technical achievements, which benefited all of hu manity.

China wants to establish a permanently manned presence in Low Earth Orbit to get ahead in its quest for scientific research, as this will ensure the country has constant ac cess to weightless conditions for biological and chemical experimentation. The space program is also focused on exploring and tapping potential economic opportunities of outer space, including space tourism and extracting valuable minerals from asteroids. Space Programs in Asia.

Although China is competing with Russia and the United States in space exploration, it may get some competition from India and Japan in the future as both the coun tries are working hard to develop their own space programs. South Korea is also steadily expanding its orbital ambitions, according to James Clay Moltz, an Associate Profes sor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. In an interview to Denise Chow from, Moltz added that Japan, a member of the International Space Station, has successfully completed 15 manned missions since 1992.

India is launching satellites and space observatories and aims to launch its own as tronauts into space by 2016. Amongst Asian countries, China, Japan and India have all conducted independent robotic moon mis sions to study the lunar surface. All three are deploying satellite constellations for both civilian and military uses. The annual space budget for Japan is US$3.8 billion and employs about 8,300 civilian space personnel. It is building the QuasiZenith Satellite System (QZSS), which is a threesatellite augmentation to GPS to cover the South Asia region. The country is working on military and civilian space technologies and planning for manned sta tions on the moon. It has not yet developed its own manned spacecraft but the JAXA manned spacecraft project is expected to launch by 2025 as part of a plan to send manned missions to the moon. Japan succeeded in an orbital launch but the credit of its first launch goes to a university institute instead of a national space agency. Many Japanese satellites were launched for the purpose of scientific explo ration and resulted in a number of discover ies.

In May this year, Japan successfully launched a South Korean satellite and is now officially in the commercial space launch business. The country also wants to win bids for entire space programs from emergingmarket nations that are search ing for both launch services and ground control systems like radars. “We need to be creative and try to offer packaged solutions to governments else where in Asia and in other developing coun tries,” said Naohiko Abe, head of the space business development at Mitsubishi Heavy, to the Wall Street Journal. China’s space program budget is US$2.2 billion and it employs 80,000 civilian space personnel. It is also building its own supple ment to the USmaintained Global Position ing System (GPS) satellite network and has already deployed one third of its planned 35satellite BeiDou network.

India’s budget is US$1.3 billion and it employs 32,000 civilian space personnel. The country is working towards launch ing a South Asian satellite network, called the GPSAided Geo Augmented Navigation (or GAGAN) System. The country is active ly involved in space programs, and it first launched a small rocket above Kerala in the 1960s. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program, was, however, more focused on increasing the standard of living of people through the practical uses of space. The country’s scientists were en couraged by Prime Minister Atal Behari Va jpayee to work towards sending a man to the moon. That was in 2003. India has now achieved several goals in this field and aside from sending remote sensing and commu nications satellites into orbit, it also sent the Chandrayaan1 probe to the moon in October 2008. In fact, India had a total of 10 satellites launched in 2008 alone. Other space plans for India include a second moon mission and launching Chan drayaan2, in 2013. The Indian Space Re search Organisation (ISRO) is also planning a manned space mission after 2016, and a mission to Mars is also in the pipeline. Despite their keen involvement with the space programs, these three Asian coun tries prefer to work independently rather than as a team toward achieving a com mon goal. This is very different from the European Space Agency (ESA), which was established in 1975 and is comprised of 18 member states.

“Where there’s close cooperation in ESA, there’s very little peertopeer cooperation in Asia,” Moltz said. “Asia really stands out as countries that are pursuing nationalistic policies in space. The major spacefaring na tions of that continent simply don’t cooper ate, and I think that’s a real problem. They also don’t have a tradition of engaging in re gional security dialogues and arms control.” Other nations in Asia that are currently expanding their space capabilities include Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan. All these nations are building their own satellitecommunications networks but are not cooperating with each other for any of the space projects.

Maybe these small nations can begin to cooperate if they see collaborative work ing of India, China and Japan. Some efforts towards teamwork have been made in the past. China and Japan took the initiative to form two regional space groups. They formed the AsiaPacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) and AsiaPacific Re gional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF). But these two groups have not cooper ated with each other either and also the members of these groups are from less developed nations such as Bangladesh with limited resources.

“I’ve spoken with officials in multiple countries, Moltz told, “and it’s very clear that, even if they’re not willing to say so, they’re watching what their neigh bors are doing very carefully, and they’re concerned about relative prestige.”


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