CHINA’S AMBITION TO DOMINATE OUTER SPACE
More than any other country, China is determined to become the foremost world power of the 21st century. As its people work doggedly to fulfill Chairman Xi Jinping’s dream of “a great revitalization of the nation,” China’s ultimate goal has become control of outer space—a vast untamed territory. China believes it can gain economic and military superiority on earth by dominating the outer space.
This Chinese ambition is discernible from the October 14 launch into orbit of the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft carrying two astronauts. The manned spacecraft, China’s sixth since 2003, blasted off from the Jinguan launch site in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. Forth-eight hours later, it successfully docked with the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, in which the astronauts are scheduled to spend 30 days.
The senior government official in charge of the Shenzhou 11 project, General Zhang Youxia of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), proudly stated that the launch was a “complete success,” emphasizing it was carried out from planning through execution entirely by Chinese. China reportedly plans to complete its own space station by 2022, with further plans to establish a lunar base by 2030 and start sending Chinese settlers to the moon.
At present, there is an international space station (ISS) in orbit jointly managed by 15 nations—including Japan, the US, and Russia. China, the only big power that has refused to be part of this international endeavor, has pursued its own space station program, acquiring American and Russian technologies through varied, including illicit, means. Meanwhile, it has created the world’s first “space force.” Its purpose? Not a small number of experts have voiced concern about Beijing’s military intentions behind this move.
Richard D. Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, first sounded the alarm about China’s activities in outer space in 1985. I recently had a chance to hear him discuss China’s ambitious space exploration program during a visit he made to Tokyo.
Fisher recalled that nobody understood his concern three decades ago when he first submitted an in-depth report analyzing China’s space exploration plans to the Department of Defense and major American think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation. He said a Defense Department official “basically laughed at me,” quoting him as saying: “The Chinese a threat? Come on. This is ridiculous. You’re wasting my time…”
Chinese Space Combat Troops
China’s space exploration has since evolved as Fisher predicted, its military ambition obvious to many. Addressing a meeting of the Japan Institute of National Fundamentals, a privately financed think tank that I head in Tokyo, Fisher spoke about an intriguing change of posture towards space exploration on the part of the Chinese government, explaining:
“China is increasingly willing to talk about what it’s doing…if the dream of space entrepreneurs in the US—such as Elon Musk and many others—of a ‘space economy’ emerges, China wants to be in a position to dominate the ‘space economy,’ and before that it wants…to dominate the Earth/Moon system.”
Musk is the South African-born entrepreneur and Silicon Valley favorite who founded the aerospace company SpaceX. Last month, he announced a new rocket and spaceship development program aimed at putting one million people on Mars before Earth’s extinction.
“China is…developing the means for greater power projection in space. The projection to control the Earth/Moon system is part of China’s general strategic, military-strategic, and political-strategic development.”
Establishing hegemony in Asia will be China’s first step towards this goal, noted Fisher, observing:
“At the same time that it’s building the forces and capacities, economic relationships, and political relationships to achieve that hegemony, it is building the same elements to support a future capability for global military projection. That will become far more visible and apparent in the next decade.” He warned:
“As it develops global power projection on Earth, China is developing the means for greater power projection in space. Because space is the high ground, the ground from which it can potentially dominate anything that happens on Earth, it is important that all countries concerned about China’s ambitions…pay attention to its activities in space and determine what that means for them.”
Fisher pointed out that China’s space program is stringently controlled by the PLA and that a new military unit—the Strategic Support Force (SSF)—was created under Xi Jinping’s major military reform initiative earlier this year to sustain China’s outer space strategy.
Fisher also said that the PLA Air Force is expected to soon add a Space Combat Force, with General Li Shangfu mentioned as its possible head.
Gen. Li was in charge of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in 2007 when China conducted its first anti-satellite missile test, successfully destroying an old Chinese weather satellite 500 miles above earth with a ground-based ballistic missile.
The experiment shook the world, because it demonstrated China’s ability to destroy an American satellite—or any satellite, for that matter—in orbit, if it so desired. With American forces depending on, and protected by, sophisticated high-technology, military satellites can be termed America’s lifeline. In this vein, the Chinese action was interpreted as Beijing’s first step in seriously challenging the US militarily in space.
“So we can say that the leader of China’s Space Force is combat-tested,” remarked Fisher. “He has conducted combat operations in space.”
Monitoring Satellites on Global Scale
To the real concern of American experts, China has made strenuous efforts over the years to refine its missile and space technology. Last June, it launched the “Long March 7” rocket from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in eastern Hainan Island in the South China. This new generation rocket holds the key to the future of space exploration by China.
Fisher believes that the Wenchang launch center, operational since earlier this year, will become an extremely important hub for China to control the Earth-Moon system, noting: “This is where China will launch its Moon, Mars, and deep space missions. This will be the most important base for the projection to control the Earth/Moon system…This is one of the reasons why China wants to control the South China Sea and is working very hard to do so.”
Preparing to control the Earth-Moon system, noted Fisher, China has set up an extensive network of ground-based tracking, control, and intelligence bases.
These bases are in Karachi, Pakistan; Malindi, Kenya; Swakopmund, Namibia; Santiago, Chile; and Dongara, Western Australia. One of the most important bases is nearing completion in Argentine, said Fisher, explaining:
“The Argentines get all of the space-derived intelligence that they want from the Chinese. If there is ever another Falklands war, with China’s intelligence Argentina could create an ambush in the mid-Atlantic…”
Despite China’s vigorous drive towards space exploration, the Obama administration decided in 2010 to cancel the plans of the Bush administration to revive a moon exploration program, creating the possibility that the ISS project, of which Japan has been a partner since 1988, may be terminated by 2024. I believe strongly that at this juncture Japan should do its utmost to become a powerful driving force in promoting a sustainable framework of international cooperation in space exploration.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 726 in the October 27, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)