Within the next few days China will launch Shenzhou-9, its fourth crewed mission but the first since 2008. The spacecraft wil ferry three people, including the country’s first female astronaut, to the Tiangong-1 experimental lab module that China launched last September. The mission will likely trigger another round of hand-wringing among some commentators in the US, expressing concern that China is catching up to, or even surpassing, the US in space, with adverse impacts for both national prestige and national security. A couple of recent white papers offer a more nuanced view of China’s capabilities, though.
“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has made significant advances in its space program and is emerging as a space power,” concluded China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests, a white paper prepared by the Project 2049 Institute for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and released in late April. Chinese space technology is not as advanced as the US and other major space powers, but “China’s relative advances are significant,” the report notes. In particular, it warns that China’s capabilities pose a security threat to the US by enhancing Chinese military systems while threatening to disrupt or disable US space systems in a conflict. “China’s space ambitions are in part peaceful in nature. Yet technologies can also be used with ill-intent,” the report states.
However, the report also notes that space planning policy is spread out among a range of government entities that could create coordination issues. “Senior civilian leaders within the party and government view space as a national priority and therefore direct significant resources toward the country’s space-related technology base. However, space policy, planning, and program management appear fragmented and loosely coordinated among a range of military and civilian players,” it states. While the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is billed as the Chinese equivalent of NASA, it lacks NASA’s influence within the government and “functions in large part to facilitate international exchanges and cooperative programs with other space-faring nations.”
Last month the Defense Department issued the 2012 edition of its annual report on China’s military capabilities. Only about half a page of this year’s report (starting on page 8 of the printed document) is devoted to space issues, briefly discussing China’s growing space capabilities. However, it also suggests that Chinese space programs “are facing some challenges in systems reliability” based on recent events. It cites the August 2011 failure of a Long March 2C launch and problems with the DFH-4 communications satellite bus as evidence that a surge of Chinese space activity “may be taking its toll.”