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What China's space capabilities mean for India

August 17, 2012 14:38 IST

China's manned missions and the space station also indirectly showcase the country's ability to use space for military purposes, says Dr Manpreet Sethi.

The successful touchdown of the American spacecraft Curiosity on mars has generated much interest in India and the world. Certainly, this is a major milestone in earth's search for life elsewhere in space. But another event of significance for India's national security went relatively unnoticed though it took place much closer home in India's eastern neighbourhood.

On June 29, China welcomed three of its 'taikonauts' aboard Shenzhou 9 back to earth after their 13-day sojourn into outer space. Of course, this was not the first time that China had sent up a manned spacecraft. In fact, it had already demonstrated this feat in 2003 and repeated it a few times since then.

But there were two new dimensions of the recent flight. One, it carried a Chinese woman astronaut into space for the first time. Secondly and far more significantly, it demonstrated China's capability to conduct docking of a manned spacecraft with the experimental lab Tiangong 1 that China has had stationed in space since September 2011. Successful docking with an unmanned spacecraft had already been conducted in 2011 itself. But this time, the three astronauts in Shenzhou 9 established that China could precisely maneuver a space capsule to rendezvous with and attach itself to a port on the station in order to transfer people and material to sustain a space station.

Each one of these feats is meant to fit into the long term objective of having a Chinese manned space station in outer space by sometime towards the end of this decade. Such a goal was first articulated by the standing committee of the Politburo in 1992 when it approved the manned spaceflight programme.

The country has steadily moved to accomplish this and in fact, the white paper on space activities issued by China in 2011 categorically identified the national ambition to "launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters, make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts' medium stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling".

What are the implications of these developments? First of all, a Chinese space station and the demonstration of capabilities towards that objective have tremendous symbolic value for power projection. Achieving these tasks reflects favorably on the scientific, technological and industrial/manufacturing capability of the country. Not only does this enhance the reputation of China to provide commercial services to global customers, it also enhances the soft power of the country.

It is worth mentioning that China today claims international cooperation with 12 countries in the field of space. Just last year it launched satellites for three customers -- Pakistan, Eutelsat and Nigeria. Of these, the two vehicles launched for Pakistan and Nigeria were communication satellites made in China. Just last month China entered into a joint venture with Sri Lanka to set up its first space academy.

Indeed, for the developing world, China has become a key provider of technology and other commercial launch services at competitive rates. But more importantly, China has taken upon itself the role of a mentor in space for many smaller countries in Asia. Since 2008, Beijing has led the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation. With its headquarters in Beijing, it comprises Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand. Training of foreign scientists at Chinese institutes and donation of ground stations to member countries to receive information from Chinese satellites are some of the activities that the organisation has undertaken.

As China enhances its space capabilities, it raises its profile amongst smaller nations taking tentative steps into this new domain. China plays upon the psychology of these nations by offering its space services as a means to break the monopoly of western imperialism in a pioneering field of science and technology. That China gains commercially and strategically from such relations is self evident.

Besides raising its profile amongst the less space savvy nations, China's manned missions and the space station also indirectly showcase the country's ability to use space for military purposes. There are reports that the Shenzhou missions have been equipped with electronic intelligence or image intelligence gathering devices. Officially, China has never acknowledged the launch of a single military satellite, admitting at most that its space assets might have a dual role. But the demonstration of capability allows enforcement of military prowess for political objectives.

Meanwhile, there are two added bonuses of the success of these plans. One, they do wonders for the party's self confidence and enhance its legitimacy at home. Secondly, they also allow China to participate in international negotiations on use of space from a position of strength. Not surprisingly, therefore, China perceives great value in these projects and will persist in its efforts towards setting up a space station by about the turn of this decade. Interestingly, this will also be about the time that the International Space Station, a joint endeavor of USA, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada would have lived its life and be ready to be de-orbited in 2020.

In the next decade then, China might be the only country with a permanent human presence in low earth orbit. It is a thought that should spur India into action.

Dr Manpreet Sethi is senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

Dr Manpreet Sethi