The last decade witnessed China’s entry into the space domain with a new zeal and enthusiasm, with the Chinese government showing sustained interest in the development of space technology. China has, till date, released three white papers (2000, 2006, and 2011) on space activities and future programmes, the latest of which was released on December 29, 2011. The White Papers have been used by the Chinese government to show what it intends to achieve in the coming years in the area of space and related science and technologies. The agenda behind releasing such White Papers could also be to project an element of transparency in activities undertaken and reduce the general concerns often expressed on China’s space programme especially after the Anti-Satellite Test of 2007. For instance, the latest White Paper states that, ‘the Chinese government makes the space industry an important part of the nation's overall development strategy, and adheres to exploration and utilization of outer space for peaceful purposes.’1
The last few years have been particularly satisfying for China in the arena of space. In September 2008, China became only the third country in the world to have successfully conducted a space walk. Other Chinese achievements include the space docking of the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou VIII and the launch of the first module of the Chinese Space Station, Tiangong I. China proposes to make the Space Station operational by 2020. China has also successfully completed the first unmanned Moon Mission; a second Mission — Chang’E-2 — was launched in October 2010.
China’s latest White Paper on space clearly shows that Beijing is determined to emerge as a major space power at par with the US. It is likely that it would eventually be able to match the US in important areas like navigation and deep space missions. In moving towards this goal, the Paper highlights a systematic plan. According to the White Paper, major targets to be achieved over the next five years include “conducting studies for a human lunar landing, conduct special project demonstration in deep-space exploration, complete the construction of the Hainan space launch site and put it into service, improve its ground facilities for data management and calibration, develop and launch Shijian-9 new technology test satellite, and returnable satellites.”2 It is beyond doubt that these targets are aimed at achieving the logical progression of technologies, which Chinese space scientists are already working on. The testing of returnable satellites and a ‘soft lunar landing’ appear to be the next stage in progressing towards a manned mission to the moon. China’s track record so far makes it obvious that it would leave no stone unturned in achieving these targets.
Beijing has also used its achievements in space to boost nationalist feelings among the Chinese people; this was so particularly in the case of the manned Moon Mission. Every new achievement is lauded as a national feat and is perceived as a milestone in achieving the ultimate goal of becoming a ‘superpower’. Other than the Space Station and Moon Mission, China is also working towards technologies which are beneficial both strategically and economically. It has demonstrated this by successfully testing its Beidou system and aligning with the European Galileo system in order to break the dominance of the US Global Positioning System (GPS). With 10 Beidou satellites in orbit by December 2011, China announced that its navigation system was operational. The Beidou constellation is now providing services for China and surrounding areas. This gives China a great advantage both in civilian and military fields.
It is important for India to realize the relevance of Chinese achievements in space technologies. But at the same time India need not get into the competitive mode. It is necessary to critically view and analyse Chinese achievements in the area of manned space missions. China’s ambitions of a manned lunar landing should not unnerve India, and it should avoid getting carried away by news of such Chinese missions. These technologies were developed by the US and the former Soviet Union almost four decades ago and China is not breaking any new ground. It must also be kept in mind that China’s manned space mission has no direct social or strategic significance.
Further, a costly and technologically challenging experiment like the International Space Station (ISS) has achieved limited success in terms of offering path breaking benefits to humanity. China’s space station programme is definitely a demonstration of its technological prowess. However, it would take decades to understand the actual, tangible benefits of such programme. Nevertheless, such programmes could help the space industry grow further and facilitate the development of new technologies with uses in other fields, including the military. As a result, there is significant discussion and concerns about China overtaking India in the space arena. However, in order to understand the edge China has achieved over India, it is important to go beyond blind comparisons. This is particularly so with regard to programmes like manned space flights and the Space Station. It is important for India to contextualize the relevance of these from the point of view of social, technological, commercial, and strategic benefits to itself. India should refrain from imitating China. New Delhi’s goal should be to work on programmes that contribute to the overall socio-economic growth of the country and those that offer strategic advantages. Thereafter, India could engage in programmes like manned and lunar missions as multilateral experiments. There is no point in engaging in flashy projects like manned missions purely for the purpose of raising nationalistic feelings.
This is not to say that the Chinese achievements are not noteworthy; rather, India should set its priorities based on its future requirements and overall growth prospects. In order to achieve further success in the space arena, developments in cryogenic technology are important for India. These should be pursued in order to develop the capability of launching 4-5 ton satellites, which will help in achieving a greater commercial edge. Programmes like Moon and Mars Missions, using robotic technologies, are also important in order to know more about the nature of resources (especially minerals) available on these bodies and undertaking their mining. It is also important to work towards launching satellites for India’s armed forces, which will help gain an advantage over adversaries. While it has been declared that ISRO will launch a satellite for the Indian Navy by March 2012, the other two services also need such satellites.
India also needs to take note of how China is exploiting the less-tapped commercial viability of the space market. It is important for India to develop its space industry keeping commercial prospects in mind. From providing other countries the facility of launching satellites to engaging in space tourism, the potential of this market is growing exponentially. India has the requisite expertise and infrastructure; what is important is devising a good business strategy and not allowing countries like the US and China to monopolize the commercial space sector. It is important that New Delhi charts its own course rather than getting carried away by China’s declared roadmap.