China's Space Capability Could Surpass United States, Panel Warns
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang, left waves near Liu Boming, center as Jing Haipeng is assisted out of the Shenzhou re-entry capsule after they landed on the plains of China's northwestern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Sunday, Sept 28, 2008.Zhai conducted the country's first-ever spacewalk during the mission.
Credit: AP Photo/Color China Photo.

WASHINGTON — The Shenzhou 7 mission and spacewalk should serve as a reminder that China is building space capabilities that could surpass U.S. technological advances and boost China's diplomatic and economic ties with its allies, a panel of experts said here Oct. 8.

China's success this decade with three human spaceflight missions, including Shenzhou 7 in September, as well as the development of remote-sensing and satellite navigation systems, two satellite export deals and the January 2007 use of an antisatellite weapon to shoot down one of its own satellites punctuate China's broader national interest to become a "comprehensive power," the panelists said.

They warned that China's space program is dominated by young aerospace engineers who could help propel the nation's advancements past the United States, which faces difficulty replacing its aging aerospace work force.

China's wide reach into manned space missions, satellite navigation and communications, and Earth monitoring could help the nation gain a foothold in an already competitive commercial space market, the panelists said.

"A newcomer like China [is] going to take a slice of a very stable pie, which means there are going to be other losers. Will it be the U.S., Europe, Russia? It's going to be something difficult that we'll have to contend with," said Kevin Pollpeter, China program manager for the Defense Group Inc.'s Center for Intelligence, Research and Analysis in Washington. "China's rise in space power is a negative sum consequence for the United States."

China has closely guarded its space budget, in large part because it is dominated by the military, panelists said. Chinese leaders reported that the Chang'e lunar program cost "no less than building a mile of subway in Beijing," Pollpeter said.

While concerns linger about China's January 2007 shootdown of one of its own weather satellites with an antisatellite missile, or A-Sat, China primarily sees space as a diplomatic tool. China prefers jamming and dazzling satellites rather than more aggressive action, said Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst with CNA Corp. in Alexandria, Va. Jamming is intentional interference with satellite signals; dazzling is illuminating a satellite with a laser in order to blind it.

Themes that can be found throughout the writings concerning China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) indicate China is focused on space deterrence, Cheng said, describing how a country's military capabilities, economy and communications could be affected by space warfare.

"We do not at this time have a very good sense of how the PLA would necessarily operate in space in order to secure space dominance," Cheng said. "What we do find in PLA writings are certain key themes: the ability to provide information support, the ability to take on both offensive and defensive positions in space and ? space deterrence."

United States policy documents, however, appear more focused than China on national security applications, prompting a "bad-guy image" globally, Pollpeter said.

"There's a perception of overemphasizing national security applications," he said. "Even though we are not the ones developing space weapons, China is the one developing space weapons, we are the ones who bear the brunt of that criticism."

One way to mitigate the perception would be to emphasize the peaceful uses of space and cooperation with other nations, Pollpeter said.

Panelists also said the U.S. space industry should relate its relevance to people the way China's space officials routinely discuss the economic, diplomatic and political benefits of a strong space program.

"Space ultimately isn't about space," Cheng said. "But too often here our conversations are stovepiped within the space community focusing on the space budget and [don't] really connect the space program to people's everyday lives even though it touches every aspect of people's everyday lives."