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In the last decade China has emerged as a formidable power in the space arena. After the success of the Anti-Satellite test (ASAT) in 2007 (where China destroyed its old satellite), Beijing established itself as a prominent space power and also showcased its capabilities to destroy satellites of other countries if the need arises. The ASAT test put China among a small list of countries that possessed the advanced space technological know-how. In addition to this, China today has a successful and operational space station, and has had a successful moon mission and spacewalk – feats achieved by very few countries in the world. This very capability is being used by China to ‘help’ other countries achieve their dream of having satellites and is also being tied with the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which was announced by Xi Jinping in 2013. China is expected to use its capabilities as a space power while executing the OBOR projects.


If one was to generate an international ranking of countries depending on their space capabilities, China would be positioned in a close ‘third’ place after the United States and Russia. In the words of Zhao Changjian, a research fellow at the First Research Institute of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, “China has launched roughly the same number of rockets annually as the US in recent years, though slightly fewer than that of Russia.” China also aims to be the leader in the space domain by the year 2045. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. has developed a road map to achieve this target.


Xi Jinping has been supportive of the Chinese space programme and has pushed for China to become a space power. China is also investing in studying the ‘far side’ of the moon and has already launched a satellite to explore the same; and has very keen interest in exploring the deep space. The satellite was launched by a Long March-4C rocket in May 2018 and is named Queqiao (Magpie Bridge); it weighs 400 kg with a life span of three years. According to an article in the China Daily which quoted Bao Weimin, head of science and technology at China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp and academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “The mission will enable us to discover what we haven’t known about the moon. Moreover, we can take advantage of the far side’s shield against Earth’s interference to make clearer observation into the deep space.” This project makes China the first country to undertake such a grand exploration of the moon. However, after demonstrating its ‘hard power’ capabilities, China today is working towards leveraging this strength in the form of ‘soft power’.


Using its strong space technology capabilities, China has been extending its ‘services’ to technologically smaller and weaker nations. Such actions have helped China gain a largely positive image. In the last few years, China has successfully launched satellites for a number of countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka etc. In the most recent case, China launched two satellites for Pakistan in July 2018. The two satellites are PRSS-1 and PakTES-1A. The PRSS-1 “will be used for land and resources surveying, monitoring of natural disasters, agriculture research, urban construction and providing remote sensing information for the Belt and Road region.” This is another area where China is using its capabilities to push its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. China had also launched satellite for Pakistan in 2011. Additionally, China launched a communication satellite for Sri Lanka in 2012. China also launched communication satellites for Nigeria in May 2007 and December 2011; and for Algeria in December 2017.


According to the Chinese media reports, China hopes to undertake 35 satellite launches in 2018, and aims to launch satellites for Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Such actions have helped China in gaining the support of a number of countries. As argued by Ajey Lele, “In general, China has been using its global position, economic strength and technological attainments astutely including in the space arena to attract developing states.” With its consistent effort to launch satellites for countries in South Asia, Beijing has managed to sideline the Indian role. Even though India did launch a ‘SAARC’ communication satellite in 2017, which was fully funded by India, Pakistan decided to not participate. The launch by India had also raised some security and spying concerns among the South Asian countries. However, this satellite was promised in 2014. Satellites form a crucial aspect of the overall development of any country’s economy and security. Satellite imagery also helps in managing major natural disasters and thus helps in improving the general living standards of the people. Thus, having a functional communication satellite can help the country in mitigating a large number of ‘natural problems’.


Another important space technology that China is ready to provide its neighbours and the world by 2020 is the Beidou Navigation System, which China hopes will become a reliable and successful alternative to the Global Positioning System (GPS). China has been selling chips which have the Beidou system inbuilt. In the last five years, around 50 million such chips have been sold domestically. China will now be looking to further intensifying its push for Beidou under the OBOR. As argued by an article in Forbes, “As BDS usage spreads, it means that billions of people in the Belt-and-Road region might be using it (not say, GPS) to guide themselves to that restaurant across town, locate a historical site, avoid traffic, carry out their financial transactions, pinpoint their loved ones, and so on. Their mobile phones and tablets will all be empowered by a fleet of China-centered satellites. This will give China and, if all goes as projected, the affiliated countries considerable integrated economic and military advantages.”


China hopes to be a major player in providing navigation services on the OBOR route for the transport of goods and services. China also claims that in the last five years, “the system has helped rescue more than 10,000 fishermen.” In fact, “more than 40,000 fishing vessels and around 4.8 million commercial vehicles in China have been equipped with Beidou.” The relevance of Beidou cannot be overstated. In the words of Ran Chengqi, the Director of the Satellite Navigation Office, “The construction of the Beidou network should resolve the country’s security issues, including economic security and the security of society at large…It’s obviously a combined military and civilian infrastructure.”


Looking at the trajectory of the Chinese space programme and how it is being used by the government today, one can conclude, that in addition to the economic might (in the form of aid and infrastructure projects) Beijing has been using its space technological capabilities to push its global agenda. By helping weaker nations to gain a certain degree of space capability China is building a ‘goodwill’ image. However, one should not ignore the fact that with time China will be pushing for the use of its Beidou navigation system by its neighbours and will also promote its use under the OBOR. China will be using its economic strength to further intensify its control over the ‘assets’ of the concerned countries. China has managed to gain control of crucial infrastructure and land by using its financial might. The most prominent examples would be the Hambantota Port and the Gwador Port. With time it may extend a similar approach to space, hoping to gain major leverage vis-à-vis countries for which it undertakes launches. The use of Beidou will also make these countries dependent on China. Space has indeed become an important outpost for national strength, and China has already reached the high table. With time it is becoming clear that Beijing is keen to assert its ‘rise’ in the space arena as well.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.