China launched an unmanned spacecraft the Shenzhou VIII (literal meaning the “divine vessel”) from the Gobi desert base in the far north-western city of Jiuquan at 5.58 AM on November 1st to carry out an important docking mission scheduled within next two days. This launch was personally witnessed by Chinese Vice-premier Zhang Dejiang along with German and European space experts. The docking finally took place successfully 343 km above the surface of the Earth on November 3rd. The process of docking took 8 minutes and was aided by microwave radars, laser distance measurers and video cameras. The joint assembly will orbit around the Earth for the next 12 days while conducting a number of tests. Earlier, on September 29th, China had launched its first module for the space station named Tiangong-1 literally meaning “The Heavenly Palace”. This Tiangong-1 module weighs 8.5 tons and is expected to stay in space for two years. The launch of Tiangong-1 was also proudly witnessed by the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao personally while the President Hu Jintao watched from a space flight control center in Beijing.
The ability to dock successfully was very crucial for the success of the proposed Chinese permanent space station. All the parts of the docking mechanism and more than 600 onboard instruments were designed and made by Chinese companies both state-owned and privately owned. The space-craft Shenzhou VIII will return to the Earth after separating initially and then carrying out a second docking operation. Incidentally, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao watched the docking operation also from an aerospace center in Beijing. China has, now, time-bound plans to develop a manned permanent space station by the year 2020. China, thus became the third space-faring nation after the US and Russia to successfully launch a space portal and build a space station.
The docking technology is hard to perfect because the two space-modules placed in the same orbit and revolving around the Earth at high speed must approach each other without mutual destruction. China decided to launch its own space station after being denied membership of the 16-nation international space station, primarily owing to the US objections. The US was concerned about sharing dual use technology with China owing to opacity and military linkage of Chinese space program. China is playing catch-up game with the US and Russia who achieved these technological capabilities in the 1960s. Following the Shenzhou VIII, there will be two more spacecraft launch missions next year including one manned mission with astronauts staying for up to one month. Two female Chinese astronauts are being trained currently for the proposed mission. China has already trained its astronauts with Russian help. In September 2008, Chinese Astronauts carried out China’s first spacewalk while piloting the Shenzhou VII.
China has also plans to launch a space laboratory before 2016. The proposed Chinese space station will weigh approximately 60 tons when completed in three sections between 2020 and 2022. It will be considerably smaller than the Russian space station Mir and the international space station. Chinese space station will consist of a module, two labs, a cargo ship and a manned rocket. The Shenzhou VIII will serve as the prototype for future Chinese space-ships. China plans more than 20 manned space flights in the next decade.
Exclusive Club of Space Superpowers
China’s stated goal is to give itself parity with the other two space-faring superpowers and not be left behind. However, the Chinese space trajectory is going to be much faster. The state-run mouth-piece Global Times while appreciating the launch, highlighted the fact that China was playing a 30 years late catch-up game with the US and Russia. It further said: “But there is no choice. As long as we are determined to rise in the world and pursue rejuvenation, we need to take risks. Otherwise, China will be a nation with prosperity but subordinated to top powers, and such prosperity depends on the attitude of others”. The Global Times editorial did caution about the fiscal implications for China to go to outer space while strongly justifying the need on strategic grounds. It further rationalized: “It is impossible for a destitute China to go to outer space, but without the support of strategic tools, it can not walk far. China’s future is destined to be entangled by all kinds of demands and goal. But they need to be well-balanced”.
China is, thus, openly and unabashedly advocating using its space program for strategic purposes in future. Sitting on cash-reserves of two and a half trillion dollars, a self-effacing “destitute” China remains committed to achieving space parity with the other two space super-powers at any fiscal cost.
Space and Military Implications
In January 2007, China tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon against one of its ageing weather satellites orbiting at 500 miles above the earth. The anti-satellite weapon was anon-explosive “kinetic kill vehicle” that destroyed its target by colliding with it. China succeeded in the 4th attempt in the series of ASAT tests. Following the successful interception, there was total silence for two weeks from the Chinese political leadership who did not acknowledged the test. China diplomatically invoked the fig-leaf of communication gap between the central Chinese government and the PLA leadership. Since the Chinese Communist party’s doctrine is that “the party controls the gun”; it was impossible for the Peoples’ Liberation Army to conduct an ASAT test without the approval of Chinese Central government. China has also developed navigation satellite jammers that are equipped to disrupt the GPS. There have been instances of China secretly firing powerful laser weapons to disable the US spy satellites by “blinding” their sensitive surveillance devices and preventing spy photography when they pass over China. Chinese acquisition of these offensive space military capabilities forced the US to conduct an ASAT test under the garb of saving the earth from the impact of one of its dysfunctional spy satellites. The US glibly claimed that the missile strike on satellite was meant to prevent the toxic 1000-pound hydrazine tank from scattering the debris over populated areas. Clearly, there is an ongoing race amongst the three space super-powers over both militarization as well as weaponization of the space. Both China and Russia have made attempts at Geneva to bolster an international effort to ban weapons in the space in order to corner and contain the US.
South China Sea Paradigm
In the 14the century CE, Chinese eunuch Admiral Ho went on a sea voyage around the Indian and Pacific oceans. Based on these “historical conquests” China wants to control the whole of the “South China Sea” as its own sovereign territory. These medieval sea voyages are also the historical basis behind Chinese so-called legal claims on the islands and atolls in the South China Sea for their mineral and hydrocarbon wealth. China insists on dealing with each of the ASEAN nations bilaterally to resolve these claims instead of dealing with the issue multi-laterally. Based on a similar imperialistic and ancient paradigm of tributary or vassal nations, Communist China has expanded its western borders to include Tibet and East Turkistan (Xinjiang) after the defeat of the Kuomitong (KMT) government. China is desperately trying to get a toe-hold in the Arctic region so that it can lay claims to the arctic mineral wealth.
Dragon’s Divine Right to the Heavenly Space
China’s strategic thinking and behavior is stereotypically “predictably predictable”. Chinese emperors in the middle kingdom were always considered “God-Kings”. Like the South China Sea paradigm, future Chinese Governments, after having achieved space superpower status may start threatening other space-faring nations. It is possible that China in future may invoke the doctrine of “China’s Heavenly Space” after having constructed a “Heavenly Palace” that mated successfully with the “divine vessel”. China has used historical precedents to justify its hegemony on both land and the sea; it will reflexively claim Chinese “divine” right to sovereignty over the space as well.
Space as China’s Core issue
The list of core issues for China is ever expanding. Starting with the historical two T’s (Tibet and Taiwan), now it includes Tibet, Taiwan, East Turkistan (China’s far-western Xinjiang region), Sovereignty, Splitting the motherland; South China Sea and everything else that China can lay claims on. As the comprehensive national power of China increases, the number of China’s core issues multiplies like a hydra-headed monster. China has a predictable national habit of leaving issues dormant but ambiguous, only to rake them up when China has the power to force the issue down the throats of strategic adversaries or peer competitors. Of course from the times of Sun Tzu, China, unlike the US likes to win the war without even fighting a battle. It is not merely hypothetical but a very real possibility that China may include access to the space as one of its “Core issues” in future.
Implications of China’s “Heaven” in Space for India
Unlike India’s space program, China has not experienced any major setback in the development of manned space flight technology. One of the recent Indian launches were infected by the Stuxtnet worm that caused malfunction and failure of the launch. China is taking rapid steps to close the space technology gap with the two other space-faring superpowers. China’s ultimate imperialistic ambition is to be the divine master or the supreme hegemon on the land, sea and the space. Such a scenario would be very similar to the contemporary situation whereby China now controls the global rare earth metals market single-handedly. China wants to control the access to the space for any other aspiring power but would be content to share the right to denial with the other two space super-powers for the time-being. China will do everything to limit India’s access to space akin to its clumsy attempts to torpedo Indo-Vietnamese collaboration in the South China Sea for hydro-carbon exploration. China wishes to keep India boxed in forever in the South Asia tinder-box. China is using the 7200 km-range DF-31 nuclear ballistic missiles to target India. These nuclear missiles are being deployed in ever increasing numbers at Delingha in central Qinghai province, only 2000 km from Delhi.
India will have to take serious notice of Chinese space program sooner than later owing to its military and strategic implications. India’s satellites and other space assets face the risk of being destroyed, incapacitated or jammed by The Chinese. ASAT capability allows states that possess it threaten India’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (CS4ISR) architecture. In order to achieve strategic parity with the US, china will continue to advance its cyber-war and space war capabilities. Chinese sham pledges not to proliferate these technologies to its minions are not worth the paper they are written on. Given the historical experience-from nuclear weapons, to ballistic missiles to advanced fighter aircrafts-it is imprudent to dismiss the possibility that China will transfer the space weapons technology to Pakistan.
India will have to master these space weapons capabilities instead of always lagging behind. India must look at military uses of space technologies and must develop her own ASAT capabilities. India will have to increase the budgetary allocation several folds for her space program as matter of urgency. India will have to develop a comprehensive space strategy that incorporates both civilian (read commercial) and strategic components. The space is indeed spacious enough for Sino-Indian sibling rivalry to play out without either side getting seriously hurt. The Space and its numerous applications are too important to leave to the Chinese Dragon alone to swallow!
Dr. Aditynajee is the President of the Council for Strategic Affairs, New Delhi, India
- China Opens ‘Space’ Post Office on Docked Spacecraft (space.com)
- Chinese Spacecraft Makes First Successful Docking (vinodkumartiwari.wordpress.com)
- China space station test modules dock in orbit (guardian.co.uk)
- China Succeeds in First Space Docking by 2 Spaceships (space.com)
- China Basks in Spaceship Docking Success (space.com)