China’s launch of a new three-person crew to its orbiting space station, and its announcement of plans to send astronauts to the Moon before the end of the decade, is a highly symbolic moment; a key pillar of Xi Jinping’s ambition to overtake the United States as the world’s top tech power.
But this is not just a political posturing. Since its inception, the Chinese space program has been part of an arms race to overtake US military capabilities, stealing foreign intellectual property (including from Britain) and accelerating development.
This aspect of Beijing’s “war beyond borders” was propelled by the concept of “civilian-military fusion” to accelerate development through the seamless integration of civil and military technological advancements.
As part of this policy, the Chinese Communist Party has ensured that its armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army, are directly involved in all aspects of research, development and industrial application of dual technologies. domestic and foreign use.
This is particularly evident in all areas related to satellite communications, tracking and guidance systems, rocket design, hypersonic flight and the development of space and lunar stations.
The strategic importance of satellites encouraged China to develop anti-satellite capabilities early on, demonstrated in 2007 when a ground-launched missile was used to destroy a faulty weather observation satellite. Since then, other anti-satellite techniques, including jammers and laser weapons, have been developed at a rapid pace.
ASPI, the Australian think tank, believes that China has already become internationally dominant in research aimed at defence, security and the space sector. China’s Space Program Mission, released in 2022, includes among its four core objectives “meeting national security requirements” and “protecting China’s national rights and interests and enhancing its comprehensive strength.”
This language, including references to “raising the scientific and cultural level of the Chinese people”, closely matches that associated with China’s Centennial Goals and Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”.
From the beginning, when Mao’s China got help from the Soviet Union to develop its missile capabilities to defend against their common American enemy, the West closely followed China’s nascent space program. In 1998, the US Congress claimed that US data provided to China for its commercial satellite had been diverted to ICBM applications.
Based on the US government’s assessment that the CCP intended to project its military might into space, NASA scientists were barred from working with their PRC counterparts, and visitors to PRC are prohibited on NASA sites. For the same reasons, a bill was passed in 2011 banning China from accessing the International Space Station.
The development of China’s independent manned space program has long been supported by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), owned by the PRC State Council. They produce spacecraft and launch systems and are also China’s largest missile producer.
First noted in 2011, the PRC supplied the North Korean nuclear ICBM project with specialized trucks, produced by a subsidiary of CASIC, which are now used as mobile missile launchers and have appeared carrying what appear to be ICBMs during parades in Pyongyang.
The PRC has always pursued a policy of projecting its strategic military powers into space. This has been well documented with regard to the PRC’s Bei Dou Global Navigation Satellite System, completed in 2020 with the launch of its latest satellite, which has been described as providing a “definitive competitive advantage” for a “world order”. led by China”. ”
One of Bei Dou’s most important functions will be complemented by a planned Bei Dou ground station in Antarctica that can be used for military purposes, including as a precision missile tracking station with global range.
The PLA’s acknowledged involvement in Chinese activities in Antarctica is in violation of an international treaty to which China is a signatory. The contract for the construction of the ground system for the satellites of the Chinese base in Zhongshan has been awarded to a subsidiary of CASIC.
China says its space mission is to “facilitate a global consensus on our shared responsibility in using outer space for peaceful purposes and safeguarding its security for the benefit of all mankind.” But beneath the much-publicized “spike” revealed in Monday’s announcement of lunar landing plans, there is already a vast iceberg of militarized intent and capability.
This is no mere vanity project, but a gesture of defiance to America, the CCP’s chosen existential enemy, and its Western collaborators, such as Britain.
Xi Jinping will have chosen this moment to disconcert his Western rivals and underline the resilience of his regime and the economic power at its disposal. If China remains determined to “go boldly” into space – and already has proficiency in anti-satellite weapons and hypersonic missiles to boot – then can the West pull together to deter his avowed intention with regard to Taiwan?
It is possible to do better in this regard. The UK space agency’s 2022-25 business plan, based on the National Space Strategy (NSS), timidly refers to “space as a team sport”. From a zero-sum China perspective, this is clearly not the case; nor is the PRC a “systemic competitor”, in space or elsewhere, since it obeys no rules and only seeks a win-win for itself.
The NSS uses language similar to that of China, speaking of “protecting and defending our national interests in and through space”. The British space agency will work with the MOD to this end.
Apart from this brief statement, there are no details in the very positive corporate plan about the threat to peace on Earth posed by China’s well-advanced preparations for war – not even a line on the end to decades of theft of Chinese intellectual property from the British. centers of scientific and technical excellence related to space.
If Downing Street is serious about fulfilling its responsibility to protect this aspect of our national interests, then firm and visible action is urgently needed to fill not just a policy gap, but a huge void.
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