Although shocking to some, China’s space efforts have actually been long in coming. Beijing has gradually built up a range of scientific, commercial, and military space capabilities since the 1980s that have now put it in a position to compete favorably with any country in Asia—even technologically advanced Japan—while presenting an asymmetric threat to the United States. Over the past decade China has launched a spacecraft that mapped the Moon (Chang’e 1), conducted a lunar rover mission (Chang’e 2), and orbited and visited a small space station (Tiangong 1), with plans for a much larger station within a decade. It is building a new launch site on Hainan Island with plans for a heavy-left booster.
In the military realm, the People’s Liberation Army has demonstrated the capability of putting critical U.S. space assets at risk in a crisis, forcing Washington to think twice about the surety of its space-enhanced military capabilities. The sheer size of China’s young scientific and engineering cadre, its steadily expanding satellite network (including a newly operational commercial and military GPS system called Beidou), its increasing space budget, and its investment in military counter-space technologies—with recent tests of possible offensive systems in 2010, 2013, and 2014—presage a broad and formidable set of capabilities. Experts are divided over whether China has set itself on a course for space dominance or not. Its policies are likely to be influenced—for better or for worse—by its economic status and its evolving relationship with the United States. But Asian countries are not taking the threat lying down.
Unlike in Europe, where all of the major powers (except Russia) are members of the European Space Agency and share a cooperative approach to space (including highly integrated cost sharing), Asia’s space arrangements are highly nationalistic, sometimes secretive, and mostly competitive. There are no space security talks currently ongoing among the major powers, no history of arms control talks linking space and nuclear deterrence (unlike in the U.S.-Soviet case), and no civil space cooperation in its key political dyads: China-Japan, India-China, and North-South Korea.