The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Tiangong-1/Shenzhou illustration
As China’s space capabilities grow, including the upcoming docking of an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft with the Tiangong-1 module, Western analysts struggle to classify various schools of thought on Chinese space policy.

A new policy typology to better understand the goals of China’s space program

<< page 1: commercial space policy

Military space missions

Little is known about the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) actual capability to wage war in space. What has been demonstrated, however, including the 2007 ASAT test and reports of China blinding US intelligence satellites, has caused much consternation across the world. One aspect of Chinese military aspirations in space that has been studied is the internal publications of the PLA and its stated views on space doctrine. Increasingly, these writings have accepted the inevitability of the weaponization of space and called for appropriate preparations to be made to successfully wage war in space.

Despite the array of activity the PLA conducts in and through space, they seem to lack a specific doctrine for the employment of their space capabilities and have not made public any substantial plans for military uses of space.

Given the dual-use nature of most space technology, it is no surprise that China’s military uses of space are advancing commensurately with its civilian and commercial programs. First of all, China is widely known to have an array of intelligence satellites for space reconnaissance and surveillance. The Ziyuan Earth observation satellite is known to be one of these, but China has also fielded the Fanhui Shi Weixing, or Retrievable Satellite, which drops canisters of film from space.15

China’s ongoing microsatellite program has sparked some of the most concern abroad. Aside from intelligence satellites, microsatellites have many potential offensive uses such as maneuvering in range of an adversary’s satellite and either latching on—a “parasitic microsat”—to disrupt proper functions, or merely exploding within range of a target satellite to destroy it. Furthermore, the ability to deploy a constellation of microsatellites on short notice, a capability China may already possess with its Kaituozhe launch vehicle, denies the deterrence factor that could otherwise prevent offensive attacks on an adversary’s space assets for fear of retaliation.

China’s rocket technology also has proven offensive military use in space: the ability to shoot down enemy assets in space through direct ascent attacks. China demonstrated such ability in 2007, which has been the impetus for much of the recent speculation about China’s military space aspirations. Despite political blowback from this test (it resulted in a 20 percent increase in the total amount of trackable space debris in low Earth orbit), China may still be pursuing ASAT technologies.16 In January 2010 China conducted a successful test of its ground-based midcourse missile interception technology. This test used technology similar to its 2007 ASAT test and, as exemplified by the US Navy-led Operation Burnt Frost that intercepted the satellite USA 193, missile defense technology can serve ASAT ends.

In addition to these hard-kill capabilities, China has the capability to use soft-kill measures to neutralize adversary’s space assets. China is known to have the means to jam satellite communication and GPS receivers and is developing directed energy ASATs, including high-powered microwave and particle beam weapons.17 The US Department of Defense (DoD), in their annual report to Congress on China’s military modernization, also notes that China is developing ground-based laser ASATs, the beginnings of which may have already been demonstrated. In 2006 the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Donald Kerr, substantiated reports that China used a ground-based laser to dazzle a US spy satellite over its territory. Although this laser could not do any long-term damage, similar techniques and capabilities used to track and dazzle this satellite could be coupled with more powerful ground-based lasers to destroy space assets. Some reports actually indicate China has already tested and deployed a ground-based ASAT laser that can target assets in LEO.18

Despite the array of activity the PLA conducts in and through space, they seem to lack a specific doctrine for the employment of their space capabilities and have not made public any substantial plans for military uses of space. In lieu of a formal declaration on space, there is a growing literature from within the PLA ranks that may be forming the basis for what later becomes stated—or unstated—PLA space doctrine. These authors generally hold the same assumptions about space, including the inevitability that space will be a domain of war in the future.19 Many also acknowledge that establishing space dominance will be crucial to fully exploiting wartime necessities such as control of airspace and secure command and control.20

Three internal Chinese sources are largely cited as being the defining PLA space doctrine writings: Space War by Colonel Li Daguang; On Space Operations by Colonel Jia Junming; and Joint Space War Campaigns by Colonel Yuan Zelu.21 Colonel Li highlights many specific recommendations to develop the PLA’s space fighting capabilities, including fielding offensive capabilities capable of “destroying or temporarily incapacitating all enemy space vehicles that fly in space above our sovereign territory.” Other recommendations include focusing development on land-based anti-satellite weapons and anti-satellite satellites as well as “assassin’s mace” space weapons that could deal a crippling blow to an enemy. Particularly important to foreign perceptions of China, these writings also call for China to combine military and civilian technology and integrate peacetime and wartime facilities.

In a society well versed in controlling media and hiding military intentions, it is interesting the Chinese government is allowing these and other perspectives to be published containing such inflammatory language on space warfare.

Other authors on the subject promote such actions as: fielding sea-launched anti-satellite weapons, attacking GPS with high energy laser weapons, fielding stealthy space satellites and weapons, and seeking the ability to attack terrestrial targets from space. Kevin Pollpeter, summing up the view of most Chinese authors writing on the subject, writes, “The development of space technology will inevitably lead to the militarization of space and space militarization will lead to confrontation in space. As the struggle over air and space control is becoming the new focal point of war, space will become the main battlefield of future wars.”22 Pollpeter also notes that throughout his extensive review of Chinese space writings, there were no rebuttals to the view that China will inevitability develop and use counterspace weapons.

These views also seem to be held by some in the upper echelons of the PLA. In November 2009, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) commander Xu Qiliang stated in an interview with the PLA Daily newspaper, an official government publication, that the militarization of space is a “historical inevitability” and called on the PLAAF to develop offensive and defensive capabilities in space.23 Xu is not only the head of the PLAAF, but as of 2007 was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CCCP) and a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC)—two primary policy decision making bodies in China. The Foreign Ministry tried to backtrack on Xu’s comments days later by reiterating that China has “all along upheld the peaceful use of outer space,” and would not be part of a space arms race.24 However, Xu did not personally retract his statements and, given his elite government position, this interview could actually be exemplary of how some of China’s top official’s views space.

Indeed, there is some indication the CCCP acknowledges the need to prepare for the weaponization of space. In December 2010, the official publication of the CCCP, the Qiushi Journal, on its website released an article that spoke to China’s perspectives on space war:

China's missiles can directly attack the military satellites, which usually orbit at an altitude less than 10,000 kilometers...China should make efforts to develop space weapons as soon as possible, as this is the most effective military means of attacking the U.S. If we can eventually fire missiles from a satellite, the U.S. will find that it has nowhere to hide; it will find itself entirely exposed to the attack radius of Chinese weaponry…Vigorously strengthening the building of our space military forces should be not only the focus of our national defense, but also the most powerful weapon to deter U.S. military blackmail.25

After the article was translated into English, the original Chinese version was altered to state that the views were those of the authors only. In a society well versed in controlling media and hiding military intentions, it is interesting the Chinese government is allowing these and other perspectives to be published containing such inflammatory language on space warfare. This suggests that perhaps the views are not condemned or are being floated as trial balloons to gauge foreign response.

Proposing a new policy typology for China in space

It is evident from the cursory review of China’s space program that there are a variety of goals and policy paths have thus far been overlooked in space typologies. China’s commercial program seeks domestic and international prestige; its diplomatic efforts seek to reassure the world of its peaceful intentions and expand its network of allies; its commercial program is forging a new market for Chinese space services; and its military program hints at a desire to prepare for the inevitable weaponization of space. Space analysts would be better served by looking at China’s space program under the auspices of a new typology that better accounts for a more diverse array of space goals and interests that factor into policy outcomes.

The typology presented here draws from existing space theory and literature. Indeed, the general tenets of Space Hawks or Space Doves translate across cultures. However, the typology also incorporates more nuanced policy end goals that represent stated or implicit policies of China’s space programs discussed above. The typology includes: Space Dragon, Audience Pleasers, Commercial Leaders, and Space Doves/Restrainers. Although these are not entirely mutually exclusive categories, they are distinguished from one another to simplify the analysis.

Previous analyses of China’s space program that look only at its military uses of space overlook China’s other goals in space that would be severely damaged by the weaponization of space. Clearly, there are many other factors and policies that China is pursuing.

Space Dragons draw from Space Hawks and Inevitable Weaponizers and, based on available sources, represent what seem to be the most pervasive views in the PLA. Space Dragons believe that that the US will inevitably weaponize space and that future combat scenarios will rely heavily on space as a domain of war. Therefore, in their view, China needs to pursue the weaponization of space to either pre-empt US dominance, or be able to seriously challenge it. This group believes that military power and national security are of the utmost importance and that pursuit of this policy should be undertaken regardless of the costs to other internal space programs.

Audience Pleasers seek to use space for domestic pacification, such as creating jobs and a high tech industry, as well as building on the prestige that comes along with a robust space program. The main means to promote this policy is an expanded civilian space program, including manned missions to the Moon and Mars, as well as a long-term space station. By overtaking the US in space trailblazing and leading the world in a new era of space exploration, China will have the world’s preeminent space program. The effects of this would have positive impacts throughout the domestic and international arenas. Given the importance China attaches to its international image, exemplified best by the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and the array of jobs that would be created, this could become a pillar for China’s CCP leadership to justify continued rule. Although a robust military space program would also garner some of the same benefits, the costs and risks associated with it are innumerable and would not warrant risking the prestige and benefit of its commercial program.

Commercial Leaders, representing those most in favor of expanding China’s commercial space industry, seeks to utilize space primarily for commercial purposes. The policy pursuit for this group would seek a robust space program aimed at quickly marketing advancements made in China’s space program to the international community. Initially, the focus would be on expanding China’s market share of underdeveloped countries by giving favorable terms that the West cannot match. China could use this approach to gain experience and revenue to then expand into established markets in the West, particularly Europe. Commercial Leaders would downplay overt military space missions because they fuel fears abroad about cooperating with China in commercial and other ventures—a means to gain valuable insight into foreign space technology. Military uses of space could also increase risk to space assets, which may deter burgeoning space powers from investing or established powers from expanding in space, thus limiting China’s market potential.

Doves/Restrainers seek to restrain the weaponization of space through diplomatic means and, as a result, restrict the ability of the US (and others) to seek space dominance. By binding the US to internationally sanctioned agreements, thereby increasing the costs of trying to militarily dominate space, the Chinese would be better suited to refocus its space program in areas that benefit it most. This policy approach could be based on ideological and moral reasons, like space doves, but could also be a cheap and politically savvy way to forestall US space dominance. This policy could also be driven by very real concerns about space debris, space congestion, and other secondary effects that would come from confrontation in space that would negatively impact China’s other space aspirations. This policy is unique in that it would likely accept significant restrictions on China’s own uses of space, particularly military uses, in order to equally restrict US uses. This policy would require reining in PLA influence over the space program, perhaps by bringing more of the space bureaucracy under direct civilian control, to ensure that China does not lose credibility in its quest to secure a space arms treaty.

This typology cannot and does not try to encapsulate all views on China’s space program nor all possible policy end goals. It is a simplification of the major viewpoints that can be deduced from the different parts of China’s space program. Although the typology is influenced by the weaponization debate, this typology aims to widen the debate on China’s space program away from whether they will or will not weaponize space. Previous analyses of China’s space program that look only at its military uses of space overlook China’s other goals in space that would be severely damaged by the weaponization of space. Clearly, there are many other factors and policies that China is pursuing. More important, though, this typology also helps highlight internal policy inconsistencies and incongruities that bring into question whether China is indeed pursuing a comprehensive space policy, a subject that deserves more analysis.


Space theory and policy typologies in the field remain relatively underdeveloped, particularly considering the importance of outer space to governments across the world. This typology is presented in an attempt to better illuminate gaps in existing literature and contribute to a better understanding of China’s space program. It is important that academics and analysts recognize that space policy is not, and cannot, be characterized primarily in terms of whether or not states will weaponize space; there is a plethora of other policy goals to pursue. Furthermore, it is also important for policymakers in the US and elsewhere to recognize that China also does not see space as a black-and-white, weaponize-or-not calculation. They have clear interests in space aside from military aspirations and most of their civilian, diplomatic, and commercial interest would actually be curtailed by an overly aggressive military space policy. Finally, in a wider sense this typology could be used to re-conceptualize the space programs of other nations and influence thinking on the space domain as a whole.


1 See Major John W. Wagner, USAF. Spacepower Theory: Lessons from the Masters. Air Command and Staff College: Alabama, 2005.; Lieutenant Commander John J. Klien, US Navy. “Corbett in Orbit: A Maritime Model for Strategic Space Theory.” Naval War College Review (Winter 2004), 59–74.; Lt Col Martin E.B. France, USAF. “Back to the Future: Space Power Theory and A.T. Mahan.” Air & Space Power Journal, Chronicles Online Journal (August 2000).

2 See also Joan Johnson-Freese. Space as a Strategic Asset. New York: NY. Columbia University Press, 2007, 131–134; Erik Seedhouse. The New Space Race: China vs. the United States. Chichester, UK: Praxis Publishing Ltd, 2010, 53–56.

3 Karl P. Mueller. “Totem and Taboo: Depolarizing the Space Weaponization Debate.” Astropolitics. Vol. 1, No. 1, (Summer 2003), 15.

4 Peter L. Hays. “Military Space Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges” in Future Security in Space: Commercial, Military, and Arms Control Trade-Offs. Ed. James Clay Moltz. Monterey, California: Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2002, 32.

5 Peter L. Hays and Karl Mueller. “Going Boldly—Where? Aerospace Integration, the Space Commission and the Air Force’s Vision for Space.” Aerospace Power Journal (Spring 2001), 39.

6 Johnson-Freese, Space as a Strategic Asset, 11; Fiona Cunningham. “True Motives for China’s Manned Space Program” China Security. Vol. 5, No. 3 (2009), 73–74, 76.

7 Roger Handberg and Zhen Li. Chinese Space Policy: A Study in Domestic and International Politics. New York: Routledge, 2007, 5.

8 Joan Johnson-Freese. “China’s Manned Space Program: Sun Tzu or Apollo Redux?” Naval War College Review 53 (Summer 2003), 53–54; Stacey Solomone. “China’s Space Program: The Great Leap Upward,” Journal of Contemporary China 15 (May 2006), 322.

9 United Nations. Conference on Disarmament. “Draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects.” 12 Feb 2008.

10 United Nations. Conference on Disarmament. “Letter Dated 27 June 2002 From the Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China and the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the Conference on Disarmament.” 28 June 2002.

11 “Statement by Mr. Hu Xiaodi, Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs of China, at the Plenary of the 2002 Session of the Conference on Disarmament.” Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations of Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland Website. 15 Aug 2002.

12 People’s Republic of China. The Information Office of the State Council. “China’s National Defense in 2010.” March 2011.

13 Gregory P. Metzler. “China in Space, Implications for US Military.” Joint Forces Quarterly. Vol. 47 (2007), 97.

14 Kevin Pollpeter. “Building for the Future: China’s Progress in Space Technology During the Tenth 5-Year Plan and the U.S. Response”. Strategic Studies Institute, 2008, 31.

15 Dean Cheng. “Prospects for China’s Military Space Efforts” in Beyond the Strait: PLA Missions Other Than Taiwan. Ed. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell. Strategic Studies Institute, 2008, 226.

16 Lt Col James Mackey. “Recent US and Chinese Antisatellite Activities.” Air & Space Power Journal (Fall 2009), 85

17 U.S. Dept. of Defense. “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010.” Office of the Secretary of Defense. August 2010, 36.

18 Ian Easton. “The Great Game in Space: China’s Evolving ASAT Weapons Program and Their Implications for Future U.S. Strategy.” Project 2049 Institute. 2009, 11.

19 Larry M. Wortzel. “Chinese People Liberation Army and Space Warfare.” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2007, 2.

20 Cheng, 215; Wortzel, 4; Kevin Pollpeter. “The Chinese View of Space Military Operations.” In China’s Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Ed. James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein. The CNA Corporation, 2005., 338.

21 Michael Pillsbury. An Assessment of China’s Anti-Satellite and Space Warfare Programs, Policies and Doctrines. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2007, 10.

22 Pollpeter, “The Chinese View of Space Military Operations,” 343.

23 “China commander says space weapons inevitable: state media.” AFP. 2 Nov 2009. Web. 19 Feb. 2011.

24 “China grounds ‘space force’ talk.” People’s Daily Online. 6 November 2009. Web. 19 Feb. 2011.

25 “How China Deals with the U.S. Strategy to Contain China.” 19 Feb. 2011. Web. 03 March 2011.