Prospects for U.S.-China Space Cooperation

Testimony Space Policy

Prospects for U.S.-China Space Cooperation

April 9, 2014 16 min read
Dean Cheng
Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Dean brings knowledge of China's military and space capabilities as a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.

Testimony before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate

My name is Dean Cheng. I am the Senior Research Fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at The Heritage Foundation. The views I express in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

My comments today pertain to prospects for cooperation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in outer space. While the United States should not avoid cooperation with any country out of fear, at the same time, it is vital that cooperation occur with full understanding and awareness of whom we are cooperating with, and that such cooperation serve American interests.

In the case of the PRC, the combination of an opaque Chinese space management structure, a heavy military role in what has been observed, and an asymmetric set of capabilities and interests raise fundamental questions about the potential benefits from cooperation between the two countries in this vital arena.

To this end, it is essential to recognize a few key characteristics of China’s space program.

First, that China possesses a significant space capability in its own right, and therefore is not necessarily in need of cooperation with the United States. Too often, there is an assumption that the PRC is still in the early stages of space development, and that we are doing them a favor by cooperating with them.

Second, that the Chinese space program is closely tied to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), their military. Therefore, any cooperation with the PRC in terms of space must mean interacting, at some level, with the PLA.

Third, that the Chinese space program has enjoyed high-level political support, is a source of national pride, and is therefore not likely to be easily swayed or influenced by the United States, or any other foreign actor.

These three issues, in combination, suggest that any effort at cooperation between the United States and the PRC will confront serious obstacles, and entail significant risks.

A Brief Overview of China’s Space Program

The PRC is a major space power, by which we mean that the PRC has the range of space-related capabilities to be able to access and exploit space for its own purposes, at times and places of its own choosing. Indeed, the PRC has a range of space capabilities that arguably equal or exceed those of Europe, and places it ahead of every other Asian country.

China possesses three space launch facilities (Jiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichang), and is building a fourth on Hainan Island, in the southernmost province of China. From their current launch facilities, they can place satellites into low, middle, and geosynchronous orbit, relying entirely on the Chinese-manufactured Long March family of launch vehicles. It is expected that China will be launching the new Long March 5 heavy lift vehicle from the new Hainan facility.

Satellites. China fields a significant array of satellites.

  • It has a communications satellite array that includes both domestically produced and foreign satellites, including at least two military communications satellite constellations: the Shentong and Fenghuo systems.
  • It is only the third country to field a satellite navigation and positioning system, the Beidou/Compass system. The Beidou system was first orbited in 2000, with several satellites in geostationary orbit. This was an active system which required the user to transmit a signal to help determine the user’s location. This active signal also provided a communications channel, which could handle messages of up to 140 characters. The Compass portion (sometimes referred to as Beidou-2) is comprised of 35 mid-earth orbit satellites. The Compass portion is currently being deployed and is in regional service.
  • It has a weather satellite constellation that includes both sun-synchronous and geosynchronous meteorological satellites (the Fengyun series). There has been discussion in the United States of relying on China for weather satellite data, due to repeated delays in replacing American meteorological satellites. The Chinese 2007 ASAT test involved a defunct FY-1C weather satellite in low earth orbit.
  • It fields a number of earth observation and reconnaissance satellites. The Ziyuan series was the first Chinese observation satellite to be able to beam their data to earth. It is the product of a joint development effort between the PRC and Brazil (in the form of the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite, or CBERS).
  • China has also fielded a large array of small satellites, including the “Practice,” “Experiment,” “Gaofen,” and “Innovation” series. These have carried a variety of payloads, including synthetic aperture radars (SAR), electro-optical imaging equipment, and monitoring equipment believed to support military intelligence requirements. A Chinese small satellite, believed to be from the “Experiment” series, was recently launched with a robotic arm. Previously in 2010, two “Practice” satellites deliberately “bumped” each other in orbit.

Manned Space Program.  China has an active manned mission program that involves the Shenzhou manned spacecraft, which has now had ten successful flights (five manned, five unmanned), and the Tiangong space lab. With the completion of the 2013 Shenzhou-X mission, China has also successfully demonstrated docking capabilities between the Shenzhou and Tiangong spacecraft, as well as relatively extended duration missions. (Shenzhou-X lasted 15 days.)

To support the manned program, China established its first overseas bases with mission support facilities in Swakopmund, Namibia, and Kiribati in the South Pacific. Chinese documents have indicated that a space station, perhaps in the 60–80 ton range (smaller than the U.S. Skylab) is expected to be deployed by 2020.

Lunar Exploration Program. The Chinese lunar exploration program has launched two lunar orbiters (Chang’e-1 and -2), as well as a lunar rover (the Jade Rabbit on Chang’e-3) since 2007. The lunar rover has exhibited erratic performance, but is still considered fairly successful. The final part of the Chang’e program is expected to be a lunar sample retrieval mission in the 2017–2018 time frame.

At this point in time, there is no official indication of plans for a manned mission to the moon. In the 2011 Chinese white paper on space, it was indicated that initial studies were now underway to explore the requirements for such a mission.

Supporting these various space efforts is a major space industrial complex mainly comprising two state-owned enterprises (SOEs): the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). Each of these SOEs is believed to employ over 100,000 people and is dedicated to producing aerospace and missile-related systems. Thus, unlike their American counterparts (e.g., Boeing and Lockheed-Martin), these companies do not manufacture aircraft or helicopters. On the other hand, not only do they produce rockets and satellites, but also ground test equipment and specialized vehicles associated with space launch, etc. In this regard, they somewhat resemble large, vertically integrated corporations.

The two SOEs are also responsible for manufacturing missiles for China’s Second Artillery, the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s Strategic Rocket Forces, as well as tactical missile systems for the PLA as a whole. Thus, subordinate research academies within the CASC manufacture not only the Long March space launch vehicle, but also the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which comes in an anti-carrier variant (the DF-21D) and serves as the launch vehicle for the Chinese anti-satellite system (the SC-19).[1] 

The PLA and China’s Space Program

The close links between the Chinese military and space are not restricted to the Chinese military and space industrial complexes. The PLA has consistently played a key role in the Chinese space effort, and China’s space program is closely identified with the military. Indeed, the Chinese space program dates its creation to October 8, 1956, with the establishment of the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of Defense by Dr. Qian Xuesen.

Since then, the Chinese military has played an essential role in the management of various Chinese space programs. This is reflected today in the continuing role of the General Armaments Department (GAD) in Chinese space affairs. The GAD is one of the four General Departments of the PLA (along with the General Staff Department, General Political Department, and General Armaments Department) that form the core of the Central Military Commission (CMC). It is the CMC that actually manages the military. The Ministry of Defense, by contrast, has little authority, compared with the two uniformed vice chairmen of the CMC.

All of China’s space launch facilities, mission control facilities, and tracking, telemetry, and control (TT&C) facilities, including its fleet of space tracking ships, are all subsumed within the GAD. Indeed, the facilities are typically referred to by their base number in Chinese literature: Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center is Base 25, while the Xichang Satellite Launch Center is Base 27. Not surprisingly, the various facilities and ships are all staffed by units of the GAD. The personnel are trained at the Academy of Command Equipment and Technology, which is a subsidiary organization of the GAD.[2]

In addition, China’s manned space program is managed through the GAD. The website of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) lists the chief commander of the program as Zhang Youxia. General Zhang Youxia was appointed director of the GAD in October 2012.[3] Another deputy chief commander (apparently the senior deputy) of the program is Major General Niu Hongguang, one of the deputy directors of the PLA General Armaments Department. Other deputy chief commanders are drawn from the military and space industrial complex, reflecting the integrated nature of this key industrial sector.

Indeed, it is useful to recall that the U.S. prohibitions currently limiting the ability of the PRC to launch any satellites containing American parts, under the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR), were put in place due to the transfer of aerospace-related information to Chinese companies in the 1990s. As the Cox Commission report noted, information that was given to China regarding items such as the fairing on the Long March-2E space launch vehicle led to improvements for Chinese ballistic missile programs. In particular, it led to changes in both rocket design and Chinese operations that improved the reliability of all Chinese rocket launches.[4]

Meanwhile, China’s satellite programs are often linked to military, as well as civilian, users. Like the United States, for example, China’s satellite navigation system (Beidou) is linked to the military—specifically, the General Staff Department Satellite Navigation Station.[5] There is even a website celebrating this organization’s achievements.[6] Military officers from key GSD departments apparently were part of the design effort for the Chinese weather satellite system. Military participation in space efforts is hardly unique to the PRC, but should serve as a reminder that any interaction with the Chinese space program will almost certainly mean a PLA role and presence.

More to the point, there is no obvious civilian counterpart to the PLA in terms of China’s space efforts. The most regularly mentioned equivalent to NASA is the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA). But the head of CNSA is typically described in Chinese writings and press coverage first as a vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), then as a deputy director of the State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), before being mentioned as the head of the CNSA. This suggests that the position of the CNSA is a third-tier bureaucracy, standing below the key super-ministry for advanced technologies, and the managing authority for China’s military industries (SASTIND).

By contrast, the PLA is a key part of the Chinese power structure. One of the key positions for the top Chinese leader (Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin) is the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. That role, along with being General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is what vests Xi, Hu, and Jiang with their power—head of the Party and head of the military. In short, bureaucratically the CNSA is dwarfed by the Chinese military (which may explain the CNSA’s absence from the top echelon of Chinese manned space management).

The Importance of Space to the Chinese Leadership

As early as 1958, months after Sputnik was placed into orbit, Chinese leaders saw the development of space capabilities as reflecting on China’s place in the international order. In May 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong advocated the creation of a Chinese space program, declaring at the Second Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress, “We should also manufacture satellites.”[7] This high-level support has varied at times, but space has generally been seen as contributing to “comprehensive national power” by facilitating national economic development, strengthening military modernization, and supporting the legitimacy of the CCP. It is therefore not surprising that senior Chinese leaders have made sure that they are present for key events such as the inauguration of satellite communications in the 1970s, or the launch of China’s first manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou-V.

For China, its space program is emblematic of its steady advancement since 1949, especially since most of it has been accomplished through its own efforts. When the Sino-Soviet split occurred in 1960, Chinese access to foreign technology was abruptly ended. As a result, China had to rely on its own efforts, in what became known as the “two bomb, one satellite” program. This effort saw the Chinese focus their national energies to develop an atomic bomb, a hydrogen bomb, and a satellite. This reflected the long-standing dual-use nature of China’s space efforts—if China was to have a full-fledged nuclear deterrent, it would have to develop a delivery system, which in turn could also serve as a space launch vehicle.

“Two bombs, one satellite” went beyond a programmatic objective, however. The term also referred to the idea of homegrown development of advanced capabilities. Because of the Sino–Soviet split, as well as the ongoing Cold War with the United States and broader isolationist policies pursued by Beijing, Chinese development of these capabilities would have to wholly rely on their own resources. The phrase “two bombs, one satellite,” therefore, came to also be associated with the idea of indigenous development and self-reliance. These characteristics remain hallmarks of today’s Chinese space program. For the same reason, Chinese “firsts” (e.g., the first satellite and first manned mission) tend to be of longer duration and incorporate more extensive tasks than other nations’ firsts.

Moreover, in keeping with the Chinese memory of the “Century of Humiliation,” Beijing will want any cooperative venture to be, at a minimum, on a co-equal basis. For the PRC to be treated as anything other than a full member in any program or effort would smack of the “unequal treaties” that marked China’s interactions with the rest of the world between 1839 and 1949. For the same reason, China has generally been reluctant to join any organization or regime in which it was not party to negotiating. For the CCP, whose political legitimacy rests, in part, on the idea that it has restored Chinese pride and greatness, this is likely to be a significant part of any calculation.

At the same time, space is now a sector that enjoys significant political support within the Chinese political system. Based on their writings, the PLA is clearly intent upon developing the ability to establish “space dominance,” in order to fight and win “local wars under informationized conditions.”[8] The two SOEs are seen as key parts of the larger military-industrial complex, providing the opportunities to expose a large workforce to such areas as systems engineering and systems integration. It is no accident that China’s commercial airliner development effort tapped the top leadership of China’s aerospace corporations for managerial and design talent.[9] From a bureaucratic perspective, this is a powerful lobby, intent on preserving its interests.

China’s space efforts should therefore be seen as political, as much as military or economic, statements, directed at both domestic and foreign audiences. Insofar as the PRC has scored major achievements in space, these reflect positively on both China’s growing power and respect (internationally) and the CCP’s legitimacy (internally). Efforts at inducing Chinese cooperation in space, then, are likely to be viewed in terms of whether they promote one or both objectives. As China has progressed to the point of being the world’s second-largest economy (in gross domestic product terms), it becomes less clear as to why China would necessarily want to cooperate with other countries on anything other than its own terms.

Prospects for Cooperation

Within this context, then, the prospects for meaningful cooperation with the PRC in the area of space would seem to be extremely limited. China’s past experience of major high-technology cooperative ventures (Sino–Soviet cooperation in the 1950s, U.S.–China cooperation in the 1980s until Tiananmen, and Sino–European space cooperation on the Galileo satellite program) is an unhappy one, at best. The failure of the joint Russian–Chinese Phobos–Grunt mission is likely seen in Beijing as further evidence that a “go-it-alone” approach is preferable.

Nor is it clear that, bureaucratically, there is significant interest from key players such as the PLA or the military industrial complex in expanding cooperation.[10]  Moreover, as long as China’s economy continues to expand, and the top political leadership values space efforts, there is little prospect of a reduction in space expenditures—making international cooperation far less urgent for the PRC than most other spacefaring states.

If there is likely to be limited enthusiasm for cooperation in Chinese circles, there should also be skepticism in American ones. China’s space program is arguably one of the most opaque in the world. Even such basic data as China’s annual space expenditures is lacking—with little prospect of Beijing being forthcoming. As important, China’s decision-making processes are little understood, especially in the context of space. Seven years after the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test, exactly which organizations were party to that decision, and why it was undertaken, remains unclear. Consequently, any effort at cooperation would raise questions about the identity of the partners and ultimate beneficiaries—with a real likelihood that the PLA would be one of them.

It is possible that the Chinese could be induced to be more transparent when it comes to space, although the unwillingness of Beijing to engage in substantive discussions on space during the last several Strategic and Economic Dialogues (S&ED) would cast doubt on this. But this would argue for a “go-slow” approach, at best. There is room for greater interaction, especially in the sharing of already collected data, such as geodesy information. As both sides set their sights on the moon, exchanges of data about lunar conditions and the lunar surface and composition all might help create a pattern of interaction that might lower some of the barriers to information exchange. Even there, however, concerns on both sides about information security and electronic espionage, etc., is likely to raise serious doubts about how freely one should incorporate data provided by the other side.

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[1]Sean O’Connor, “PLA Ballistic Missiles,” Air Power Australia Technical Report No. APA-TR-2010-0802, April 2012, (accessed April 7, 2014).

[2]People’s Liberation Army, Academy of Equipment Command and Technology,  “2007 Researcher Application Form,” (accessed April 7, 2014).

[3]China Manned Space Engineering, “Management,” (accessed April 7, 2014).

[4]U.S. House of Representatives, Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, The Cox Report (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1999), pp. 220 and 221–222.

[5]Xinhua, “A Record of the General Staff Department Satellite Navigation Station’s Commitment to the Beidou Navigation System,” Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, November 9, 2013, (accessed April 7, 2014).

[6], “The Stars in the Sky Join Beidou,” (accessed April 7, 2014).

[7]Deng Liqun, ed., China Today: Defense Science and Technology, Vol. I (Beijing: National Defence Industry Press, 1993), p. 356.

[8]For a more extensive discussion of this topic, please see Dean Cheng, “China’s Military Role in Space,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 55–77, (accessed April 7, 2014).

[9]Mark Stokes, “China’s Commercial Aviation Sector Looks to the Future,” Project 2049, Futuregram No. 09-002, May 8, 2009, (accessed April 7, 2014).

[10]It is worth noting here that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not a part of the CCP Politburo, a key power center in China. Thus, the voice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is muted, at best, in any internal debate on policy.


Dean Cheng
Dean Cheng

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center