At the end of December, China released their latest five year plan and review document. While many have provided (and will continue to) make comment, I thought it would be timely to give some thoughts myself. As mentioned before, the goal of RealSpaceStrategy is to do our best to provide the reader the ability to read between the lines, especially when it comes to nations such as China that can use bland language to hide interesting things. A disclaimer, my thoughts and translation of the translation may not be fully accurate, but after reading and working with China scholars, it should be close.
I will take areas of interest and provide thoughts on them section by section. Hope you find it informative.
Preamble: The first paragraph continues a Chinese theme going back decades to the time of Mao (at least). This is related to China as the leader of the developing world. They make mention that even developing countries are finding space development as an “important strategic choice”. Usually, if China is leading a developing world into anything, that strategic choice is meant as a counterbalance against “imperialism” or some other threat perception. With these activities “flourishing” it sounds a bit like China is taking credit for this development somewhat. That makes sense given some of the help China has given some smaller nations launch and control spacecraft.
The second paragraph of the preamble may, if not read in context, seem more sinister than it really is. It references how the space industry has been key to the development of China as a whole, bringing them from the century of humiliation towards the China Dream of a restored, leading China. However, the translation appears to lump atomic and thermonuclear weapons and missiles into the “space industry”. Based on all I have read on Chinese space development and strategic thought over ten years, this reads to me that they are linking their space achievements and development of space for China as the latest in a long line of technological developments showing China’s mastery of high technological endeavors. Its about prestige and power and they have all that the major powers of today have and are moving ahead with them. It is true that in China’s view of space deterrence, there is a view of “strategic deterrence” which has some links of their space infrastructure with their nuclear enterprise, but…in this instance, I don’t think they are saying that atomic bombs are part of the space program. I would say that given the PLA runs the space effort in China and the “commercial sector” is not like we have it in the West, it would not be a stretch to say that all of the above is ran through the Party.
As for openness and understanding…I would take it with a grain of salt. the Chinese will only share what they think will help their image in circles that care, mainly those in arms control and environmental arenas at the UN and the developing world. Thus the use of terms such as “green” and “balanced” development.
Some people who read this may end up skimming over the language as it sounds benign at first and look for areas they as the reader are interested in. This would be a mistake when reading an English translation from the Chinese government. In the Purposes section, not the link between national security and social progress. They link the cultural leadership of China to the protection of “China’s natural rights and interests, and build up its overall strength.” This could be a reference to how their growing spacepower infrastructure is going to assist in the push in 2017 and beyond in the South China and East China Seas claims. These claims and island building include the development and deployment of air and missile forces. So…watch for some space demonstrations in the new year or those to follow. I wouldn’t be surprised if “scientific” experimentation expands some as support for terrestrial objectives.
Vision: China will be an independent space power that uses international collaboration to achieve their strategic ends. Period. That includes “sustained economic and social development, effectively and reliably guarantee national security” among other items regarding what China has referred to a “counter-intervention” strategy. All of this, space development, military development is tied to the China Dream of restoring China to its “rightful place” as lead nation culturally and otherwise.
Peaceful Development- This paragraph will be latched onto by those who ignore the rest of the document and the past and present context. This appears to me to be more cover for their space actions in the past and the present (debris generation sensitivity in the West, environmental push for “space sustainability” among some American and European think tanks, as well as push for opposition of “weaponization or an arms race in outer space” which is a reference to the PPWT and PAROS initiative’s at the Committee on Disarmament or UNCOPUOS. I would note that given the Chinese already have space weapons capabilities (reversible and kinetic) that one should read this skeptically. There is no push for disarmament here nor is there any reference to ground based space attack infrastructure. One does not need to base capability in orbit to have space attack capability. Also, keep in mind some historical truth regarding Russia and China in arms control conventions. Since the late 1800s, Russia specifically has hosted Hague and Geneva Conventions on laws and restraints of weapons of war. The goal was not to create a peaceful world, but to limit their potential enemies who were advancing in technological capability faster than they could achieve or afford. The same is still true today. Even though the US has not committed itself to a robust space defense program, despite rhetoric to the contrary, that does not mean that China and Russia don’t want to keep it that way, while they develop, test and deploy capabilities of their own for strategic advantage. Something to watch as we start the new year.
Due to lack of time, I will focus on one final section and perhaps review the rest at a later date.
The Space Debris Section 9 is interesting. While the title of the section is space debris, I think its messaging is not so much about that. Its about how the Chinese have developed what we call a SOSI network. Space Object Surveillance and Identification (SOSI) is a way to track debris but also a way to track everything else. If the Chinese can track small debris amounts, it shows they can monitor space activities of other nations and parties. This can also be helpful in cataloging and creating a list used for military purposes should they decide to-targeting of weapons and information gathering on adversary capabilities. While the focus is on debris, which people love to focus on as the “real threat” to space, some even going so far as to call space debris the real weapons in space, its a distraction from their real message. We can see you and we can target you in need be.
Just to clarify, this is what I believe to be the “between the lines” messaging of these sections based on what I have seen and read over a decade of studying the Chinese as a culture and as a space faring nation. Remember that documents like this are designed for public consumption and are worded accordingly to project a peaceful image as we see things, not as they see things in all respects. Reading PLA and other sources, gives me context to question some of what I am seeing and believe that the messaging here are only cover or part of the true strategic message and plan for the next five years. I think they will continue to stick to their plan of gradually making progress and achieving their goals. We shall see how it all unfolds.