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China's Space Narrative

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     Both China and the United States have created separate parts of their military dedicated to space. Commercial, scientific, and military endeavors in space are all intimately linked, and one must understand how they are viewed to better understand how a nation might proceed in one or all of those fields. In accordance with our charter to support the Secretary of the Air Force, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the Chief of Space Operations, and other DoD and U.S. government leaders, the China Aerospace Studies Institute designed its 2020 CASI Conference around China’s space activities. This report serves as the baseline and the core of that effort. This report was a collaboration between CASI and CNA’s China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Division. We would like to thank the team at CNA for their work on this project. The authors would like to thank Second Lieutenant Owen Ou (USA) for contributing his research for this project, and Dr. Brian Weeden for his review of the study.

     The rise of China’s space program presents military, economic, and political challenges to the United States. In March 2019, Vice President Michael Pence stated that the United States and China are in a new space race “with even higher stakes” than the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and that China has an “ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.”

    This report examines Chinese perceptions of the U.S.-China space relationship. It argues that China’s space program is one component of the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of making China rich, strong, and proud. China regards its space program as an important expression of its national power that serves its political, economic, and military interests. Although Chinese sources describe the United States as the leading space power, they see their own space program as catching up with the United States and surpassing it by mid-century.

    This report finds that Chinese perceptions of the U.S.-China space relationship are a reflection of the overall U.S.-China relationship. Chinese sources weave a space narrative that portrays China as a modernizing nation committed to the peaceful uses of space and serving the broader interests of advancing humankind through international space cooperation, economic development, and scientific discovery. Chinese sources minimize the military role of China’s space program. In contrast, the same sources portray the United States as the leading space power bent on dominating space, restricting access to space, and limiting international space cooperation to countries with similar political systems and level of economic development.

     This report concludes that the United States and China are in a long-term competition in space in which China is attempting to become a global power, in part, through the use of space. China’s primary motivation for developing space technologies is national security. However, as China’s space program advances, its commercial and scientific activities will become more prominent and will extend the competition to encompass economics and diplomacy, challenging U.S. leadership in space just as China challenges the United States across the full range of diplomatic, military and economic power. In this respect, China’s space program is one element of its efforts to transition the current U.S.-dominated international system to a multipolar world.

    To date, China’s success in space can be attributed in large part to top-level leaders recognizing the benefits of space power, consistent planning, and stable and ample funding. U.S. success in competing with China will need to rely on the same fundamentals. 

     As the era of great power competition continues to evolve, we must understand the full breadth and depth of the competition, how they think, and how they are likely to act or react. This report lays the foundation to better understand the nature of the PRC’s vision of space, and its role in comprehensive national power.

Dr. Brendan S. Mulvaney
Director, China Aerospace Studies Institute