Strategic Options for Chinese Space Science and Technology

November 20, 2013 | 6:00 am
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

Last spring the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) produced a report that included a lengthy section on the future of Chinese space science and technology. A translation with commentary is now available on the UCS website.

The report articulates a strategic vision for Chinese space science and technology that should give pause to U.S. observers who believe Chinese investments in space technology are driven primarily by military objectives.

Defense applications for space technology are discussed in the CAS report, but they take a back seat to civilian ones, including coping with climate change, managing resources, responding to natural disasters and generating economic returns. The report identifies space debris, space environmental awareness and the emergence of global norms for behavior in space as new issues for Chinese policy-makers. CAS acknowledges human spaceflight is politically important but suggests it should compete with other Chinese space priorities on economic, scientific and technical grounds. The human program is currently administered by the General Armaments Department of the People’s Liberation Army.

The report also calls for significant changes in Chinese space policy and administration.

CAS notes that China’s Shenzhou human spaceflight program and its Chang E robotic lunar exploration program both receive significant domestic and international media attention as well as generous financial support. But CAS warns that without reforms in Chinese national space policy and administration, these expensive, high-profile programs should not be expected to make significant contributions to the primary objective of China’s national investment in space science and technology, which the report identifies as new scientific knowledge and technical capabilities that serve overall national development. This is not because these programs are unsuccessful, but because they are not organized and administered effectively. According to the report, Chinese space activities are currently managed by a hodgepodge of military and civilian entities that do not effectively coordinate objectives, manage resources or share data.

CAS calls on China’s political leadership to create an “actual national space agency” to run all of China’s space programs. The agency would be overseen by a single special committee. If enacted, these reforms would put all Chinese military, commercial and scientific satellite programs under a unified administrative body that reports directly to the central political authorities. Such a development could radically transform China’s current approach to national space policy, including making it more transparent and accountable to the expectations of the international space community.