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China’s Space Policy: A Whitewashed Reality?
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Praggya Surana | Date:03 Jun , 2017 0 Comments
Praggya Surana
is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.

Outer space is often built up as the fourth and ultimate frontier of warfare that man can imagine. An interesting development and immediate concern for India is China’s rise in this sphere of science. The space activities by People’s Republic of China have often been viewed through a lens of mistrust and as an act of militarisation by the western world, led by United States. Subsequently, the United States has always acted in a manner subverting the Chinese effort in space innovation.[i]

A prime example of this is the deliberate exclusion of China from the International Space Station. However, China claims that their effort is rooted in the best interests of mankind as envisaged by the ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’. This may be attributed to the dream of China’s early leadership. Zhou Enlai believed that China’s accomplishments in space would translate into international prestige.[ii]

Whether it is China’s aim to merely be seen as a global power treated at par with the United States or gain military dominance remains to be seen.

On 27 December 2016, the Information Office of the State Council of People’s Republic of China published a white paper on China’s space activities in 2016. Using this as the basis of research, and in light of the impending arms race, this article  seeks to find out whether China really does have ulterior military motives or not, especially ones that might pose a threat to India.

China’s Space Activities

Even from the most objective standpoint, it cannot be denied that China has taken steps in clear violation of its international legal obligations under the Outer Space treaty. The Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 that destroyed a defunct Feng Yun 1-C weather satellite[iii]and broke it down into as many as 3000 free-floating pieces that could clash into satellites placed in orbit by other nations[iv] thereby jeopardizing their research and efforts. This act must be seen in the light of Beijing’s tall claims about maintaining a clean space environment devoid of space debris. At various points through the white paper, Beijing boasts about the technology it has developed to detect and send out early warning signals against hazardous space debris, conveniently failing to take responsibility for the 2007 incident. This is simply an act of power projection for the benefit of its rivals.

China has also exhibited its strength in overtly defensive operations such as a 2013 direct ascent test, launched from Xichang that the Beijing press reported to be a ‘missile defense interceptor flight test.’[v]

However, the covert implication of it is not to be missed- that the test was conducted in ‘nearly geosynchronous orbit,’ where most of India’s satellites are located. This was an act of power projection, displaying China’s capability to launch missiles from its own territory that could destroy enemy satellites during times of war.

India continues to grapple with difficulties in developing its own indigenous Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) to reduce reliance on the GPS used by the U.S. and the Russian GLONASS.[vi]

In the meanwhile, Beijing has successfully developed the Beidou Navigation Satellite System which features in the ‘achievements since 2011’ section of the white paper. Beidou-2, officially offers positioning, velocity measurement, timing, wide area difference and short-message communication service in the Asia-Pacific region. Looking through an international affairs perspective, the perceived advantage Beijing will enjoy are the reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities giving them an edge in military applications such as using satellites to direct bombing raids or to orchestrate a prompt strike.[vii]

In battle, the army in possession of the higher ground has a natural advantage over its adversary;[viii]right now this higher ground is navigation ability through satellites in space.

Impact on India

We must first understand what India considers to be a threat in space to understand whether Beijing’s developments in space technology pose a threat to India or not, Naturally, territorial protection is a factor. But when it comes to space, can a satellite placed by one country in orbit be said to be its territory. The answer is no. However, based on the Outer Space treaty, to which India and China are both signatories, each country has the right to explore the outer space for its own and the combined benefit of mankind. Rooted in this principle of freedom in space is the index developed by the UN to measure the exercise of this right by nations, the Space Security Index (SSI). SSI measures the sustainable and denial-free and sustainable access to and use of space for peaceful purposes for one and all, and freedom from space-based threats. 

Looking at the Chinese activity against the test of SSI, the activity simply does not measure up. The display of ability to destroy satellites in orbit implies that the other countries do not have ‘denial-free’ access to space for peaceful purposes. India and China have both been denied GPS access in a military situation by the United States. Now in a scenario where, China has developed the Beidou system and may be able to map Indian movements on ground through it, Beijing enjoys the advantage to launch surprise strikes and ambush any Indian offensive, effectively crippling the Indian troops on ground.

Therefore irrespective of whether Washington’s fear regarding Beijing’s space program and ambitions is well founded or not, India should not get taken in by China’s whitewashed statements regarding its policy. Irrespective of the stated aims, China is building its capabilities in violation of its international legal obligations. India’s immediate concern lies in Beijing’s increasing anti-satellite capabilities coupled with its indigenous navigation system which can be used to its advantage in a possible conflict. This can pose a formidable challenge to Indian forces in the future if her indigenous capabilities are not shored up. 


[i] Stuart Clark, ‘China: the new space superpower’, 28 August 2016, The Guardian, (Last accessed 21 May 2017)

[ii]JayanPanthamakkadaAcuthan, ‘China’s Outer Space Programme: Diplomacy of Competition or Co-operation?’, International Relations, 2006, (Last accessed 25 May 2017)

[iii] Owen Bowcott, ‘Outer space demilitarisation agreement threatened by new technologies’, 11 Sep 2013, The Guardian, (Last accessed 21 May 2017)

[iv]Harsh Vasani, ‘How China Is Weaponizing Outer Space’, 19 January 2017, The Diplomat, (Last accessed 24 May 2017).


[vi]VasudevMukunth, ‘Three Atomic Clocks Have Failed Onboard India’s ‘Regional GPS’ Constellation’, 30 January 2017, (Last accessed 21 May 2017).

[vii]Amit R. Saksena, ‘India and Space Defence’, 22 March 2014, The Diplomat, (Last accessed 23 May 2017).



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