IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Friendly rivalry or new space battle?

From China’s milestone human spaceflight is sparking a wide array of opinions as to the mission’s true significance.
Chinese university students look at a model of the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in Xian, the capital of China's central province of Shaanxi.
Chinese university students look at a model of the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft in Xian, the capital of China's central province of Shaanxi.
/ Source:

China’s milestone-making Shenzhou 5 flight, piloted by Yang Liwei, a lieutenant colonel of the People’s Liberation Army, is sparking a wide array of opinions as to the mission’s true significance.

The landmark space voyage is seen as China’s opening volley in what policy analysts anticipate will be an ever-expanding agenda of human space exploits. China’s Shenzhou 5 trek marked the fifth flight of the craft in four years’ time, and the first to carry a pilot.

But to what degree does China’s historic sojourn into space signal military intentions, a hungering for space cooperation, or just a public morale boost fueled by nationalistic get-up-and-go?

National pride 
Erich Shih, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy in Washington, sees the success of China’s first human spaceflight as a huge boost to the Chinese people’s sense of national pride.

“It is also a boost to China’s international image,” Shih said, and “shows the world that China has every potential to become the next power center in East Asia.”

Shih said, however, that one successful human space flight is not going to change China’s present international pecking order. “But it does point out a future direction … that China is moving up through the ranks,” he said.

For the Chinese it’s a very historic event, said Marcia Smith, a policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “It demonstrates that they have the technological ability to put humans into space. Where it all leads, I think it’s still up in the air,” Smith said.

The Chinese have discussed plans for their human spaceflight program, Smith said, that include building space stations and maybe, someday, even sending people to the moon. “Those are very expensive endeavors, and time will tell whether or not they consider that to be a worthwhile investment.”

Braggin rights
Bates Gill, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, contends that the Shenzhou 5 mission is not “Sputnik II” or the start of a new “space race.”

“Nevertheless, being the first developing-world country to put a man in space gives China some bragging rights and brings it a step closer to its claims to be accepted as a ‘Great Power,’” Gill said.

Gill said that, for the near-term, the Shenzhou 5 flight will resonate most in China, boosting the country’s national pride and the Communist Party’s hopes for legitimacy. Over the longer term, he added, if Beijing’s commitment to a robust space program continues to grow, China’s strategic missile modernization will steadily realize increasing technological benefits.

James Lewis, CSIS senior fellow and director of the group’s Technology and Public Policy Program, views China’s space voyage in different terms.

“Countries send people into orbit to increase national prestige. Manned spaceflight does very little to change the equation for space commerce or national security,” Lewis said.

Lewis said one issue is whether Beijing or Washington will “overreact” to the successful Shenzhou 5 flight and turn it into a new source of competition. Another issue, he added, is whether the United States “will be embarrassed about the disarray in its own manned space program.”

No stunt 
“It has been 42 years since the last time a nation put its first human into space,” said Matt Bille, a space historian and analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“The Chinese have clearly done this very methodically, developing their technology step by step and testing the spacecraft four times before now,” Bille noted. “I suspect we are going to see a logical program of building up their capability in low Earth orbit to do long-term stays and focus on earth science, industrial applications and other capabilities that have some payoff for their economy as well as national pride.

“No other nation has done this in 42 years — not even the European Space Agency. The Chinese will emphasize this. When it comes to space, they — not India, not Europe — have been the first in four decades to join the superpowers. You’re going to see a nation bursting with pride at earning its place in the history books,” Bille told

“This has been very careful … and very logical. It’s a very well thought-out program. That tells you that this is not meant as an occasional stunt,” Bille said.

Chinese moon?
Writer Paul Dickson, author of the book “Sputnik: The Shock of the Century,” says the real question is what’s next for China’s space program.

“The Chinese have been promising to deliver humans to the lunar surface as long as they’ve been talking about putting a man in orbit,” Dickson said. When and if it becomes apparent that this is China’s goal, that will have a ripple effect in NASA plans, he said.

“I think the U.S. will have to seriously consider getting back into the business of manned space exploration. It is hard to imagine that the U.S. will allow the Chinese, or the Chinese in partnership with the Russians, to explore and exploit the moon. It also means that for the first time since Richard Nixon was in the White House serious talk can resume about sending humans to Mars,” Dickson said.

Perhaps humans will be walking on the moon again in 2007, Dickson suggested, on the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch which started it all.

“The first thing I thought about when I heard the news [about Shenzhou 5] was Sputnik. The second thing was the fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare,” Dickson said.

Open airlock policy
With a human space trek under its belt, could a debate now ensue in China regarding the value of piloted or robotic space exploration? That’s the question being asked by Jonathan Coopersmith, a Texas A&M University professor specializing in the history of technology.

“In terms of non-political results, robotic spacecraft are more productive. Will Chinese advocates of robotic flights now face a powerful ‘man in space’ lobby like their American counterparts?” Coopersmith said.

“It will be very interesting to see how this launch plays in Taiwan and Russia,” Coopersmith added. “Indeed, how will the Chinese government exploit the Shenzhou flight for domestic and foreign political benefit?”

The United States may respond to the Shenzhou 5 flight by inviting China to become a partner on the international space station, Coopersmith suggested. “An offer of cooperation will be politically important to China and will constitute an American acknowledgement of China’s technological accomplishments,” he said.

On the other side of the equation, China participation in the station would lend financial and technical support for the troubled space station. “The Bush administration, restricted financially by the growing budget deficits it has created, will correctly argue that cooperating with China is less expensive than competing with it,” Coopersmith said.

Strategic implications
The Shenzhou 5 landing and safe return of the taikonaut is an event that has several strategic implications for the United States and the international community.

That’s the view of William Martel, professor of National Security Affairs and the chair of space technology and policy at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Firstly, Martel said, China has now entered the ranks of the “first tier” states: “In terms of prestige and technological ability, China is now of the primary players in space. This, by itself, has significant implications for the U.S. and its position of unquestioned strategic superiority in space.”

Martel said that China can be expected to accelerate the pace of its space program.

“Now that China has passed the human milestone of putting someone in space — and bringing him back home safely — China will correctly conclude that its program can be directed toward more manned missions. We should remember that China is actively promoting the idea of putting people on the moon. In addition, China will engage in other programs, such as new constellations of satellites, a new ‘Hubble-like’ space telescope, and so forth,” Martel told

Replay of space race?
Beginning in the late 1950s, the “space race” between the former Soviet Union and the United States was a powerful metaphor for showing off political, economic and cultural strengths. The “top that” nature of this rivalry — Vostok vs. Mercury, or Gemini vs. Soyuz — was muted over time after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. Ultimately, this 20th space superpower competition led to cooperative adventures, such as the international space station.

It remains to be seen how China may rekindle a 21st-century replay of Cold War one-upmanship as a new arrival in human space exploration.

China is likely to expand its relationships with other international consortia, Martel said. “Today, for example, several European nations expressed interest in teaming with China for future spaceflights.”

Martel said that China clearly views the Shenzhou 5 success “as part of the early stages of more aggressive competition with the United States over its current position of supremacy in space.”

“It is inevitable that China and the United States will begin to believe that they are engaged in some form of a space race,” Martel said. “This can have significant military and technological implications for both sides. And this can have positive consequences. We should remember that the greatest advances in the U.S. space program occurred during the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were directly competing in space.

“For now, it looks like the principal players in space will be Washington and Beijing,” Martel concluded.