The Global Impact of the Chinese Space Program

The Global Impact of the Chinese Space Program

Space activity has increased tremendously over the past decade thanks to both the growth of space applications and the entry of many new national and regional players. Space is now understood as a fully dual-use domain, with space systems not only part of the digital and cyberspace domains and as such powerful socio-economic enablers, but also at the core of all global defense policies and operations. Indeed, space is the smart-power tool par excellence, effective for applying both soft and hard power or, as is more often the case, a little bit of both.

Space power is the modern-day equivalent of the 18th-century sea-power domain so eloquently described by Alfred Thayer Mahan, but extended to both the vertical and digital dimensions. Countries with global ambitions understand that, absent significant space capabilities, they will neither attain nor retain global pre-eminence. But since every post-Cold War national space program, with the exception of the U.S. thus far, has at some point been subject to significant resource limitations, nations have needed to cooperate to some degree or another in order to develop significant capabilities. As space systems become more complex and costly, this trend is going to increase and will likely even affect the U.S.

Although China has relied on cooperation in the past to develop its space capabilities, it is increasingly willing to go it alone, proceeding slowly and steadily in a "long march" fashion. China might cooperate on space activities to accelerate a particular program or to gain prestige and recognition along the way, but ultimately its aim is to become a global competitor in space. Over time, Chinese policymakers have studied, analyzed and understood both the successes and failures of the U.S.-Soviet space race as well as the benefits China can derive from space. One such benefit, increased national pride, is more important in China than in any other current major spacefaring power -- with the possible exceptions of India and Russia -- because it helps unify the country during periods of great stress and transformation.

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