A new space race? What is driving China’s manned space program?

space race; NASA

Space has become a hot topic in international relations, especially in analysis of intensifying China-US competition and claims that we are witnessing a second Cold War. Such lines of argument tend to focus on the so-called ‘weaponisation’ of space. However, more perplexing is the question of China’s manned space programme. Manned space exploration has long been a contentious issue in both domestic and international politics. 

Despite the rather rosy and nostalgic views of the Apollo programme and the American ‘victory’ in the race for the Moon, contemporary viewpoints were incredibly divided on the issue. Many felt, and indeed still do, that sinking billions of dollars into essentially proving a point was a misplaced use of public funds. The fact that humans reached the Moon at all, was not so much a technological feat, as a victory in political marketing; that in a democratic political system which draws its mandate for power from the taxpaying public, the political will existed to seemingly prove that the US was in some intangible way, ‘better’ than the communist bloc.      

What then motivates the Chinese manned space programme, given that it’s own domestic political dynamics are so different to that of other leading space powers? Although Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership does not have to worry about the need to secure successive political terms in the same way US presidents do, this does not mean that they are immune or isolated from public opinion. Indeed, the CCP’s legitimacy is very sensitive to public opinion, and the successes of the manned space programme are key to the public message of ‘national rejuvenation’. Of particular interest to this topic is the case of the Tiangong programme: China’s aim to have a permanently manned space station in orbit by 2022. 

It would be a mistake to dismiss projects such as the space station as a mere show of technological superiority. It is tempting in the context of intensifying China-US rivalry to understand the move to put a space station into orbit, and then subsequent aims for the Moon and Mars as a ‘new space race’. In 2019 the then Vice-President Pence stated that “we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.” This comparison is largely a clumsy one given the vastly changed political landscape we see today, and lends some weight to the Chinese criticism that American thinking on space is coloured by a ‘cold war mentality’. 

A factor that perhaps highlights the significance of China’s Tiangong project is the fact that the only other permanently manned object in orbit – the International Space Station (ISS) – is due for decommission. Not only is the ISS primarily led by the US – whom many see as China’s greatest strategic rival- but it is a symbol of international friendship and co-operation from which China has been conspicuous by its absence. This absence has been prolonged by dynamics within US politics, which have been enforced in legislation explicitly prohibiting NASA from engaging in either direct bilateral cooperation, or multilateral cooperation including China. 

Whether or not we are seeing the beginning of a new space race between the US and China is up for debate. What is clear, is that China’s rapid development of a feasible space station project helps to demonstrate its position as a leading spacefaring power. In the race to the moon between the US and USSR, there was a definite goal – the moon landing. Both the CNSA and NASA are now aiming to achieve a myriad of goals such as lunar and Mars landings, and the rapid development of technologies which make activities such as asteroid mining feasible mean that the implications and variety of activities carried out in space will still grow exponentially. This is an area that China feels it cannot afford to be left behind in, and it’s continued successes will make it impossible to ignore, both for spacefaring, and non-spacefaring states. 

Bethan Howells is a MA Chinese Studies student, on a career break from her role in the Civil Service. Her research interests include China’s security and military modernisation, China’s international relations, China’s space programme and technology and innovation in the Chinese economy. She is currently working on her masters dissertation on the Digital Silk Road initiative and China’s rise.

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