Shift from military to civilian reignites debate on China space programme

The latest announcement that China would send its first civilian astronaut into space has brought back the focus on China’s burgeoning space programme and its intentions. The shift from military to civilian space programme is being seen with a lot of suspicion by the global community. Experts do not rule out the possibility of intimate ties between the space program and the Pla saying that the dual-use nature of space technologies and the military’s involvement in some aspects of the space program was a matter of global concern.

The duel use technology refers to technologies that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. China’s space capabilities, such as satellite technology, can have both civilian and military applications, leading to concerns about the military applications of their space program. Also, there are concerns about China’s space program contributing to the militarization of space. China has been developing technologies and capabilities that can be used for space-based surveillance, intelligence gathering, and potentially offensive operations. This led to worries about an arms race in space and the destabilizing effects it could have on international relations.

China has proved its anti-satellite (Asat) capabilities in the past. In 2007, China conducted a test in which it destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile, creating a large amount of space debris. China had destroyed its own defunct satellites in 2019. In April 2021, China launched into orbit the first piece of a permanent space station using its most powerful rocket. Remnants from the rocket finally fell in the Indian Ocean after a 10-day descent. Such actions have raised concerns about the potential militarization of space and the risk it poses to other countries’ satellites.

China’s space program lacks transparency, making it difficult to assess its true intentions and capabilities. China has been less open compared to other space-faring nations in sharing information about its space program, leading to suspicions and concerns from the international community. China’s space activities, particularly its anti-satellite tests and the creation of space debris, have raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of space and adherence to international norms. Preserving the space environment and ensuring responsible behaviour in space are important for the global space community, and any actions that undermine these goals are a cause for concern.

China which wants to establish itself as the leading space power has collaborated with Russia for following reasons:

1) Technological Collaboration: Russia has a long and established history in space exploration, with significant expertise and experience in areas such as human
spaceflight, rocketry, and space station operations. By collaborating with Russia, China wants to take benefit from its technical knowledge, capabilities, and infrastructure, accelerating China’s own space program.

2) Access to Russian Technology: Russia possesses advanced space technologies and systems that could be valuable for China’s space ambitions. Collaborating with Russia allows China to gain access to technologies that it may not have developed or mastered yet, enabling faster progress in its space program.

3) Geopolitical Cooperation: China and Russia have been building closer diplomatic and economic ties over the years. Collaborating in the space sector can serve as a symbol of their strategic partnership and align their interests in countering perceived dominance by other space-faring nations, particularly the United States. It also enhances their collective influence in shaping international space policies.

4) International Recognition: Partnering with Russia helps enhance China’s international standing in the space community. Russia’s reputation and credibility in space exploration can lend legitimacy and recognition to China’s space program, especially as China seeks to establish itself as a leading space power.

5) Resource Sharing and Cost Reduction: Joint space missions and projects can enable resource sharing and cost reduction. By collaborating, both China and Russia can share the financial burden of ambitious space initiatives, leverage their respective resources, and achieve common goals more efficiently.

Both China and Russia have collaborated on several projects including joint missions, technology sharing and establishment of the China-Russia international lunar research station of ILRS. They have teamed up for a robotic mission to an asteroid in 2024. They are coordinating a series of lunar missions intended to build a permanent research base on the south pole of the moon by 2030.

Critics are concerned about China’s interest in partnering with Russia in the space programme. But NASA Administrator Bill Nelson recently said that despite global tensions with Russia due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, NASA’s relationship with Russia’s cosmonauts is as strong as ever. He however added that he saw a lack of transparency from China’s space agency. China And yet, the difference in space relations could not be more stark, Nelson said. He pointed out that Russian cosmonauts operate the International Space Station side by side with NASA astronauts, and that they frequently trust each other with their lives. Nelson said that despite the war in Ukraine, NASA’s relationship with Russian’s space agency has not changed. China has faced criticism in the past from NASA for its handling of space debris after the remnants of a rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean in 2021.