Over the past two decades, China has made significant strides in the space domain, surpassing Russia as the US’s primary competitor in this arena. The rapid advancements made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have ignited discussions among US decision-makers concerning security issues and potential future conflicts.
China has been working relentlessly to close the gap with the US in terms of space exploration, as evidenced by its increasing number of orbital launches. In March alone, China successfully launched six of its indigenous carrier systems, delivering satellite units into orbit for both domestic and international purposes. Last year, China closed with 62 successful orbital launches, an increase compared to 2021, and is aiming to set another record this year.
The US, led by SpaceX, conducted 84 flights in the past twelve months, with over 60 carried out by SpaceX alone. In 2023, SpaceX aims to surpass the 100-launch mark within 365 days, while China may face challenges as it transitions from older launch systems to newer and more efficient designs.
China’s focus on delivering satellite devices, primarily for observation purposes in both civilian and military sectors, has raised concerns among US officials. The increasing number of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites developed by China are perceived as potential threats to US units and allied facilities. Furthermore, China’s launch systems have been used for international partners, such as the recent launch of the Egyptian Horus-2 satellite by the Long March 2C rocket.
In addition to observation satellites, China has also launched the Gaofen satellites for Earth observation and the Shyian satellites for undisclosed purposes. While the China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) agency has not revealed specific plans for the Shyian satellites, it has stated that they will be used for “in-orbit verification of new space technologies, such as monitoring the space environment.”
The development of China’s space sector presents a threat to private American companies, as China plans to launch nearly 13,000 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) to compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink project. Moreover, China is inching closer to launching its own space tourism sector in response to the achievements of Western companies.
China’s ambitious space program includes expanding the Tiangong space station, building a lunar lander, and launching a series of educational programs to train young researchers in space engineering. This rapid progress in China’s space domain has fueled the growing rivalry between the US and China in the development of space technologies.
In conclusion, China has made impressive progress in the space sector over recent years, and while the US maintains an advantage in this domain, that lead appears to be diminishing. As both nations continue to develop their space capabilities, it is likely that the coming years will witness increased militarization of space and the emergence of new strategic challenges.