TV screen shot of China's robotic lunar probe Chang'e-4 landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, 2019.
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China’s space program is about more than soft power

The historic moon landing of China’s Chang'e 4 marks a symbolic victory for the emerging space power. But lack of transparency along with concerns about dual-use plans and surveillance undermine China’s efforts to persuade the world of its peaceful rise. For Europe, Beijing can be a selective partner on space matters at best.

NASA administrator Jim Brindestine called it “an impressive accomplishment.” On January 3, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) successfully landed the probe Chang’e 4 on the unexplored side of the moon. A remarkable scientific success, the landing also sparked concerns in Washington that China may use the remote lunar dark side to conceal anti-satellite weapons.

Establishing China for the first time as an emerging space power in global public view, Chang’e 4 is only the tip of the iceberg of Beijing’s long-nurtured space ambitions. Later in 2019, a follow-up mission will bring samples of lunar soil back to Earth. A lunar research base “shared by multiple countries” and the world’s first probe to Mars are in the pipeline. In 2018, China launched more space rockets than any other country. The indigenous technological base is improving steadily, narrowing the gap with established space powers.  

China has also made notable progress in satellite applications, including earth observation and imagery, communications and broadcasting, and navigation and positioning. After president Xi Jinping opened the space industry to private players in 2014, a host of new space startups are competing with state-owned aerospace giants. By 2020, China’s commercial space sector will be worth an estimated 120 billion USD

In line with the core message of the 2016 White Paper on Space Activities, China has been eager to present itself as a peaceful and trustworthy space power opposed to arms races in outer space and committed to multilateralism. Such a narrative appeals to developing countries lacking autonomous space capabilities. It also seems to persuade the European Space Agency (ESA.  

For now, China downplays more controversial aspects of its space program, such as the interest in space mining and military applications. However, the Chinese government has been rather open about the fact that it sees space policy as a tool for strengthening its “comprehensive national power” (综合国力), gaining international prestige and soft power while also advancing its commercial and geostrategic interests. “The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger,” Xi said in 2013 shortly after taking power. The vision is for China to become the global leader in space technology by 2045. 

Mindful of how Beijing extracted critical dual-use technology from the Galileo satellite navigation program, Europe must exercise caution when cooperating with China in space. 

Lunar silkworms and low-cost satellites 

China’s space program is, on paper, a peaceful endeavor to advance mankind’s progress, from insight into the origins of the universe to the potential of future human colonization of the moon. Equipped with scientific payloads from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and other countries, the Chang'e 4 mission hit headlines for sending silkworms, cotton and potato seeds to the moon’s dark side.  

Central to China’s space rhetoric is an emphasis on international collaboration. As the United States banned taikonauts from working with NASA and, consequently, with the International Space Station (ISS), China pushed back by pledging to open its own space station scheduled for 2022 to all UN member states. In Asia, China has backed the creation of a new regional institution, the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO)

The primary focus of China’s space outreach on earth is in the developing world. Besides tapping into a multibillion market, China seeks to cement ties with selected countries through space diplomacy. Beijing has sold low-cost commercial satellites to several countries, such as Brazil, Nigeria and Pakistan, and offered a dozen others money, training and technology to launch their own. In Venezuela, some 145 million USD in space assistance was granted in exchange for natural resources.  

Satellite launches are also part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The rhetoric of a “Spatial Information Corridor” emphasizes benign applications such as prevention of natural disasters and emergency rescue: last year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) launched its Big Earth Data initiative (the Digital Belt and Road, or DBAR), which uses remote sensing for sustainable development. And by 2020, China’s indigenous network of 35 BeiDou navigation and positioning satellites will provide services to 60-plus BRI countries, challenging American GPS and Europe’s Galileo. If the Chinese military makes no secret of BeiDou’s role in upgrading its guidance and surveillance capabilities, the government instead underlines digital connectivity.  

Lack of transparency fuels mistrust

The Chinese government is much less vocal on other crucial aspects of its space ambitions (including budgetary ones), raising legitimate international concerns that undermine China’s desire to be perceived as a reliable spacefaring nation. The outdated 1967 Outer Space Treaty has gaps when it comes to regulating, say, asteroid mining. Chinese engineers are working on ways to capture small asteroids as well as to harvest natural resources in orbit. The moon’s minerals, including rare earth metals and Helium-3 (which can be used for nuclear fusion), also attract an energy-hungry Beijing. 

Last year, China signed an MoU on space cooperation with Luxembourg, a country which codified a law giving companies the rights to material they mine in space (the United States passed a similar bill). The 2016 White Paper is remarkably silent on space mining, but as Chinese legislators formulate an overdue legal framework for space activities, it will be interesting to see how they address questions of territorial sovereignty and resource appropriation. Given Beijing’s track record in some earthly arenas, such as the South China Sea and the Antarctica, international trust might be hard to secure. 

Besides being rich in natural resources, outer space is seen as a strategic domain for China’s national security and defense, as clearly stated in the 2015 Military Strategy; it is also one where China aims at dominance. Xi Jinping established the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015 to support joint combat operations in space and integrate them with electronic warfare and cyber capabilities. Last year, a US Department of Defense report warned that China would step up the militarization of space through the development of counterspace capabilities. In December, Boeing canceled a controversial satellite order, which had secretly been backed by  financing from a PLA-linked entity in order to bypass US export control laws.     

China’s lack of transparency over its ambitions of civil-military integration (军民融合) undermines its own efforts to boost its soft power through space exploration. It may also fuel self-fulfilling prophecies of a new space race: largely in response to China’s moves, US President Donald Trump signed a directive on February 19 to set up the previously planned military Space Force.

Several developments motivate US concerns. In 2007, China conducted a test which destroyed one of its satellites, raising fears over a potential weaponization of space. In addition, a network of at least eight Chinese satellite ground stations scattered around the world is facing growing scrutiny.  In 2017, the launch of a project to set up a potential ground station in Nuuk, Greenland was reportedly orchestrated to conceal its military component. Now researchers warn against the potential use of a Chinese satellite station in Northern Sweden for intelligence collection, casting doubts over the proclaimed civilian nature of China’s remote sensing program.  

Amid growing anxieties over the BRI’s lack of transparency, space cooperation with developing countries also raises scrutiny. Satellites are the channel through which countries access information. They are also vulnerable to cyber hacks. Just as the digital infrastructure funded and built by China facilitates government-led surveillance, censorship and espionage in some cases, a space-based Silk Road may well increase China’s influence over those countries.  

For Europe, China can only be a selective partner in space 

The ESA has long been keen to work with China, particularly on scientific missions for which pooling resources is key to success. Last year, the European space industry expressed wariness of the Trump administration’s vision of US dominance in space. At first glance, with its rhetoric of cooperation and peaceful development, Beijing may appear like an ideal partner. ESA director general Jan Woerner told Xinhua News that the agency welcomed more cooperation with China. Aside from human spaceflight and lunar research, China and European countries collaborate on a variety of projects, from earthquake early warning to oceanography.  

But despite the undisputed scientific benefits of such cooperation initiatives, Beijing is far from being a reliable partner in space. The opaque role of the military in the country’s space program, coupled with China’s behavior in similarly uncertain legal spaces on earth, calls for a cautious approach in Europe. If Washington’s zero-sum posture fueled greater competition and mistrust with China, a soft approach may underestimate very real risks, such as the transfer of dual-use space technology to the PLA. Europe should limit cooperation efforts to shared scientific goals, for instance space debris mitigation. At the same time, it must use this opportunity to demand greater transparency from China.