China’s Vision for Space
Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

China’s Vision for Space

Interview with Khyle Eastin
November 21, 2023

In recent years, China has expanded its capabilities and ambitions in space, which encompass a combination of economic, military, scientific, and political interests. To better understand the challenges and opportunities that the country’s evolving space strategy poses for the United States, Lily Huang interviewed Khyle Eastin, a senior intelligence analyst at CrowdStrike and a nonresident fellow at NBR, about China’s current activities and long-term objectives in this increasingly contested domain.

How does China envision the space industry from a strategic standpoint, and what are its long-term strategic objectives for outer space?

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s strategic vision for space has become fairly comprehensive. Based on government statements about the sector and its development history, my understanding is that China’s primary space program interests and drivers currently revolve around a combination of military and economic interests, as well as being focused on scientific and technology development and political prestige. All of those interests have over time become more integrated and expanded under Xi, relative to prior leaders. Especially as we have seen China’s national space capabilities expand, the appetite for leadership in this field has expanded as well.

It is evident that China’s space ambitions align with core interests of the Chinese Communist Party, which include providing public goods and services, fostering a world-class modern military, and presenting the party in a politically competent and prestigious light. Moreover, China aims to modernize the nation through the cultivation of a vibrant domestic technology and innovation ecosystem, leading to economic and social development. In the long term, China seeks to establish itself as a global space power, but the precise definition of what this means remains elusive.

Regarding China’s objectives in space, being a global space power would likely imply being an innovative international leader in cutting-edge technology and possessing well-established commercial space services, especially in countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. On the military side, becoming an established space power would likely mean that China’s leadership is confident in the success of its efforts to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), particularly in enhanced military access to information, the PLA’s ability to conduct joint force operations, and the ability to deny the same to adversaries during a potential conflict.

In China’s view, what are the key areas of U.S.-China competition and cooperation in space?

In the realm of U.S.-China space relations, there are numerous technology areas of competition on the horizon. Some key areas to highlight are commercial satellite constellations, reusable space launch and orbital vehicles, and on-orbit satellite services.

China is pursuing the construction and deployment of a national broadband megaconstellation—effectively a nationalized version of SpaceX’s Starlink—with the China Satellite Network Group overseeing the project. The company was established in 2021 with the publicly stated goal of providing high-quality advanced technology and economic internet and information services. The structure of a space-based satellite megaconstellation provides for ubiquitous, or nearly ubiquitous, service coverage across a considerable span of territory—particularly helpful in reaching rural areas—and also would serve the needs and increase the resilience of PLA military information systems.

Some conversation in China revolves around the need for the country to field its own satellite constellation. This discussion has focused on the current relatively unchallenged dominance of Starlink within low earth orbit. There are concerns among decision-makers and industry analysts in China that the country could fall behind technologically should it fail to capitalize on developing its own satellite constellation as a national infrastructure backbone, particularly as big data, Internet of Things devices, and 5G and 6G telecommunications become increasingly commonplace around the globe.

China’s experimental orbital reusable space launch vehicle, known as the Shenlong space plane, has been compared to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane. China has alleged that the United States uses the vehicle for spying purposes, therefore suggesting how China likely views the role of the Shenlong space plane in serving its own interests. Additionally, China’s private sector space-launch companies often look to SpaceX as a benchmark for their own development, including developing liquid-fuel rockets in addition to the more common solid-fuel rockets.

Another area of technological competition lies in on-orbit satellite services, with various proposals for cleaning up debris, refueling satellites, and more. China’s successful testing of Shijian-21, an on-orbit servicing assembly and manufacturing satellite, in early 2022 indicates progress in this field. Shorter-term military implications and longer-term commercial implications include support for sustainability efforts in space to remove debris and extend the life of space systems via maintenance, repair, refueling, and other services, especially with the growing number of companies and nations proposing megaconstellations.

Beyond scientific and technological prestige, China’s space ventures hold potential for both competition and cooperation with the United States and other countries. This includes projects like the Chinese space station (Tiangong), which contrasts with the International Space Station. China’s participation in the International Space Station is restricted by U.S. laws such as the 2011 Wolf Amendment, which imposes legal restrictions prohibiting NASA from performing scientific collaboration on space projects with China without congressional approval. China also aims to establish a permanent crewed lunar base in the 2030s, analogous to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords.

While there are opportunities for scientific discussion and engagement between the United States and China in space, barriers like the Wolf Amendment and the involvement of China’s military in national space initiatives hinder political appetite. Geopolitical tensions, especially concerning key technologies like semiconductors, and a general lack of trust from both governments of one another’s larger strategic intentions create further challenges to cooperation.

In the past, China and the United States have attempted to start a conversation through bilateral meetings, such as the 2015 U.S.-China Space Dialogue and the 2016 Space Security Exchange during the Obama administration, but talks have dwindled since 2017. Nevertheless, space diplomacy could still offer an additional and wide-reaching avenue for communication during an otherwise politically tense period in relations, especially in the context of international interest in climate cooperation and space sustainability and safety efforts.

A new commercial launch site in Wenchang, Hainan, is under development. What are the feasibility, benefits, and challenges of this project? Does it signify the rise of China’s commercial space sector in contrast to the traditional state ownership of the industry?

The idea of establishing a space port at Wenchang began in the 1970s, but it gained momentum in the early 21st century due to China’s perception of its control over the South China Sea relative to potential competitors like the United States. The port finally opened in 2016. The China National Space Administration has made significant improvements to its space bases, including Jiuquan in northwest Inner Mongolia, Taiyuan in northwestern Sichuan, Xichang in southern Sichuan, and Wenchang in Hainan. Wenchang’s natural location and proximity to the equator make it suitable for a wide variety of space missions, for both government and commercial launches.

Wenchang is currently outfitted to support China’s government space exploration missions to the Moon and Mars, potentially including crewed missions. It is being expanded to serve as a central hub for commercial space launch and megaconstellation deployment, which will also bolster China’s military space capabilities. As a result, Wenchang will likely witness a rapid increase in launches from China—primarily on the commercial side, although the United States still leads in number of annual launches. Once the commercial launch facility has been expanded, Wenchang is expected to take over all orbital launches currently planned for Xichang, which will then serve as a backup launch site. The relocation is mainly due to safety concerns. Ever since a 1996 launch failure caused casualties on the ground, Xichang’s proximity to populated areas has necessitated evacuation warnings when a rocket is launched.

Wenchang played a significant role in launching China’s Tiangong space station modules and supporting deep space missions. The local government of Hainan has reportedly shown interest in satellite launches as a means to boost the local economy, with recent focus on servicing government, military, and commercial needs. Regarding challenges, specific details are not provided by the government, but the potential for increased demand on Wenchang might lead to heightened competition between commercial private space launch companies and state-driven missions. While China’s private space sector is expected to grow, the government-manufactured Long March series of rockets will likely remain the primary launch platform for major Chinese space missions, at least in the near term. Nevertheless, opportunities for growth exist in providing launch services and payloads for domestic and foreign companies, particularly those involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Overall, Wenchang’s development reflects a general increase in demand for diverse space launch capabilities across commercial, military, and government interests. It does not necessarily signify that China’s rising commercial space sector now surpasses state-driven missions in importance. The focus remains on expanding China’s space programming to cater to various primarily state-directed needs and priorities.

What do you see as the general role of cyber actors in the space industry? What are some potential cybersecurity threats, and what safeguarding measures are being implemented to protect critical space assets?

The space industry has become an attractive target for malicious cyber actors, with ground systems in particular being at high risk. Targeting specific assets and space organizations can be challenging, but relatively sophisticated malicious cyber actors, often with state backing, have demonstrated the capability and political motivation to achieve their goals by targeting space infrastructure, including satellites.

The motivating factors behind such attacks can vary. They may include standard intellectual property theft, especially from private companies developing commercially or militarily valuable applications or products. Organizations and companies often develop their own intrusion skills and talent to better target space systems, likely through sponsored hacking competitions and exercises. For instance, the U.S. military sponsors hack-a-satellite competitions, and it is likely that China has similar initiatives. These competitions focus on hacking satellites or space-related assets as part of cybersecurity development efforts.

Adjacent emerging technologies, such as quantum key distribution networks, have been introduced as a means to enhance defensive and security measures in the space sector. These networks involve both ground and space systems and are designed to increase the difficulty of hacking and breaking into quantum-based systems. China’s Strategic Support Force, established after 2015, combines the country’s military, cyberspace, and electronic warfare units. Their publications highlight ongoing research and development efforts, particularly in understanding emerging technologies to strengthen defensive assets, especially those that are difficult for humans to physically access regularly.

Khyle Eastin is a Senior Intelligence Analyst at CrowdStrike and a Nonresident Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

This interview was conducted by Lily Huang while a TFAS intern with the Center for Innovation, Trade, and Strategy at NBR.