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The Chinese threat to American leadership in space
Gabriele Garibaldi

The Reaganite years saw the introduction of the US space program, halted during Bill Clinton's reign, but reinstated when Donald Rumsfeld was nominated as Secretary of Defense. The zeal with which he relaunched the US space programs - acquiescing to the military and industial military lobbies’ requests for rapidly developing space weapons - ­ is evidence of a throwing down of the gauntlet to potential “peer competitors” of the United States. Furthermore, this decision conforms to the will expressed by the neo-conservative Bush administration to definitively reaffirm and consolidate the unipolar role of the United States in the twenty-first century and to begin the new millenium with a “New American Century”, an expression belonging to the “Project for the the New American Century”, the think tank that has Rumsfeld as its President.

Such a unipolar-imperial Grand Strategy has to be based on the search for overwhelming power - an instrument of “benevolent” protection of the allies and a deterrent to those who want to defy it: in short, a concrete series of plans aimed at “Full Spectrum Dominance”, meaning worldwide military domination through the ability to project unilaterally into all possible battlefields and thus control the outcome. According to the US Space Command, the USA will be able to establish and perfect this “Full Spectrum Dominance” from Space, giving them the power to choose whom to include and whom to exclude. (See “Mastering the Ultimate High Ground: Next Steps in the Military Uses of Space” - a document released at the beginning of 2003 by the Rand Corporation, a think tank partner of the US Air Force that expresses the will of the industrial military lobbies, which asserts the necessity for the USA to “ensure our continued access to space and deny space to others, if necessary”, an expression adhered to by those present in the strategic plans of the US Space Command, making implicit reference to China).

The Bush administration's withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and its decision to dispose of the self-imposed military limitations belonging to the defunct bipolar order, shows the USA's desire to increase the "power gap" between itself and its potential “peer competitors”. Such competitors would, they hope, have to think long and hard before entering into a race against the USA, an action that would involve an enormous diversion of national resources into minimising the considerable gap between itself and the US. The last challenger to a US-initiated arms race was the Soviet Union in response to Reagan's Star Wars program; potential challengers today would no longer choose to follow the Soviet Union's strategy.

The EU and Japan have the economic and technological means to deploy weapons in Space, but they lack both the political will to challenge the USA and the ability to fund the costs of an independent defence policy: although the USA may be aware that the Europeans are not about to emancipate themselves from their traditional alliance-subordination relationship with the USA, already the ESDP (European Security and Defense Policy) and the satellite plan Galileo (the alternative to the American Global Positioning Satellite) have provoked irritation in their main ally.

Russia has the know-how to compete militarily in Space but lacks the financial resources. In 2003 its expenses forecast for space programs was only a tenth of the US$3 billion allocated by China, compared to the US$23 billion that the USA puts into NASA and the myriad space-related programs, including missile defence. But if it had the means, Russia would probably put into effect a space policy aimed at filling the power gap with the USA and attempt to re-establish a multipolar international order.

The rise of China as a space power

Among the potential “peer competitors”, China appears to be most able to mount any sort of challenge to American primacy. Its space program is strongly supported by Chinese leaders who wish to assert and maintain Chinese regional power, as well as attempting to dispute the current unipolar world order. With the technical assistance of Russia and other ex-USSR countries, the new nation is making such significant progress that it is now the focus of US worries.

According to the Pentagon, China is publicly opposing militarization of Space and trying by diplomatic means to prevent or slow down the development by the USA of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) and missile defence, but in private, however, it is considering that the development of such weaponry may in fact be inevitable if they wish to maintain any pretence to multipolarity in the future, even going to the length of searching abroad for technical knowledge.

For instance, Beijing is developing a new family of modular rockets to send heavy loads into space, with the aim of being able to put 25 tons into low earth orbit and 14 tons into geostationary orbit by 2007. Beijing has also begun to develop a smaller launch vehicle with a solid propellent, the Kaituozhe (Pioneer, KT or KTZ-1). The KT-1 is the first step towards the development of a series of small rockets that will be needed to launch a new generation of small satellites that are currently undergoing development. China is investing massively in the development of this type of mini-satellite, which could eventually be used offensively against other satellites.

China is also making substantial progress in manned space missions, with the first mission successfully completed on 17 October 2003, and has long-term plans for its own space station and probably a reusable space shuttle. Although the strongest factor behind the Chinese space program is political prestige, the efforts of this Far East superpower to send men into Space will also contribute, indirectly, to the development of the expertise required for future military applications between 2010 and 2020. It is known to US Intelligence Services that China is dedicating considerable resources into lasers for military use, and that by “…using a combination of indigenous capabilities and foreign assistance, China could emerge as a leading producer and exporter of military lasers by 2020”, according to the US Department of Defense.

The Shenzhou 5 and the first taikonaut of Chinese history

On Wednesday, 15 October 2003 China launched the Shenzhou 5 and its first astronaut (taikonaut) into orbit, joining the USA and Russia in the exclusive club of countries that have carried out manned missions into Space. According to American analysts, national prestige and pride are the main motivations of this (very expensive) program, of which China has emphasized the indigenous nature, although it could not have been acheived without Russian assistance. But for the Chinese it is more than simply symbolic: it is a reaction to China's new-found awareness that Space is important for the future of military operations (in relation to the US Revolution in Military Affairs) and is a domain from which China cannot remain excluded.

The Shenzhou (“Divine Vessel”) program was born in 1992 (as part of a program in three steps that, after the launch of the first astronaut, foresees the development of a space station and the completion of a modern Earth-Space transport system) and has grown quickly with the help of Russian technical aid. In 1995 Beijing came to an arrangement with Russian company RKK Energia to train the Chinese astronauts and acquire technical information on their ally's Soyuz space capsule. In short, the present Shenzhou 5 is a greatly improved copy of the Soyuz.

The American perception of the Chinese space program and vice versa

For some analysts the Shenzhou, with the rest of the space program, is intrinsically tied to the Chinese efforts to modernize its own military forces and to catch up to America's space assets. According to Michael Stokes, aerospace analyst at the Department of the Defense, “the Chinese human space flight program is part and parcel of the nation’s broader ambitions in space that have very clear implications for U.S. national security 10 to 20 years in the future”. Stokes declared that China has paid great attention to the strategic role that the space assets have played in the American military actions in the post-Cold War period (from the 1991 Gulf War to the recent 2003 war against Iraq) and commented that he was personally worried less about China's attempt to catch up with the “human space flight club”(the launch of Shenzhou 5 hadn’t yet occurred) than about its efforts “to develop a robust network of military satellites of its own, while at the same time researching ways to take out the other’s satellites in the event of a conflict”. Evidently the US military think the enemy has the desire to “deny space to others, if necessary”, as expressed many times in the US Space Command documents, in the conclusions of the Space Commission presided over by Donald Rumsfeld (before his nomination to the head of the Pentagon) and finally sealed by the Rand Corporation's “Mastering the Ultimate High Ground”.

China's official reply to America's anxiety over its competitor's desire to abuse Space responds by stating their respect of international law regarding this new territory. In fact, China emphasizes that “certain countries”, i.e. America, are showing their will to realize “space weaponization”, notably after the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and since declaring their will to develop the Theater Missile Defense (TMD). The Chinese authorities, therefore, indirectly admonish the USA in these terms: “China is concerned about certain countries’ joint research and development of theater missile defense (TMD) systems with a view to their deployment in the Northeast Asian region. This will lead to the proliferation of advanced missile technology and be detrimental to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. China resolutely opposes any country which provides Taiwan [a notoriously independent state] with TMD assistance or protection in any form [italics in original text].”

[to be continued]

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