China has been steadily and ambitiously advancing its presence in the global space arena, and its ‘Space Silk Road’ strategy plays a pivotal role in this ascent. China’s relentless pursuit of becoming a global space power has been notably characterized by its ‘Space Silk Road’ strategy, an ambitious plan that seamlessly aligns with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as its backbone, China’s space endeavors are extending far beyond our planet’s boundaries. The latest developments in China’s space endeavors, including the resounding success of the Chang’e-4 probe landing on the far side of the moon and significant advancements in satellite technology, have bolstered its ascent in the global space arena. By promoting these collaborative efforts, China seeks to not only bridge the gap between nations but also contribute to the peaceful development of space.
In this article, we delve into China’s grand vision of becoming a global space power by integrating the ‘Space Silk Road’ strategy with its BRI, and the implications this has for international collaboration, technological advancements, and China’s growing influence in space exploration.
China’s Space Achievements
China’s impressive satellite portfolio encompasses a wide range of capabilities and applications. Among these are the Yaogan, Gaojing, and Gaofen-7 satellites, which contribute to Earth observation, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions. The ZY-3 and Huanjing-1A satellites provide valuable hyperspectral imaging capabilities for environmental monitoring.
Tianlian satellites serve as essential data relay nodes, facilitating seamless communication with other spacecraft. TJS-3 satellites, equipped with high-throughput technology, enhance data transmission capabilities. Shijian-13 satellites are dedicated to laser communication experiments, exploring advanced communication technologies. China’s commitment to cutting-edge technology is further demonstrated by its development of 6G satellites, pushing the boundaries of next-generation wireless communication.
The Xingyun constellation supports the Internet of Things (IoT) by providing global connectivity. Guowang satellites expand China’s broadband communication network, while the BeiDou GNSS constellation ensures precise and reliable global positioning and navigation services. Altogether, China boasts an impressive fleet of 493 operational satellites, showcasing its prowess in space technology and its multifaceted contributions to various sectors.
China has also invested substantially in a human space program, known as “Project 921.” China sent its first crewed spacecraft into space in 2003, making it the third country after the United States and Russia to send humans into space. China’s civilian space exploration goals are ambitious, as developments in this area show. In November 2022, it sent three taikonauts to its recently completed Tiangong space station and, it plans to build a lunar research station in partnership with Russia by 2035.
In 2020, China launched a probe bound for Mars that successfully landed and delivered
a robot that was able to explore its nearby environs—a remarkable engineering achievement. China also has its eye on interplanetary human travel, with plans to send a crewed mission to Mars in 2033.
China’s development of space infrastructure, such as constructing new launchpads and growing
space-based telemetry, tracking, and command communications that will have an interplanetary reach, reflect its commitment to developing space capabilities. These moves evidence China’s investment in space development beyond the bounds of purely Earth-centric satellite activity.
Among Beijing’s priorities is the development of space technologies that will enable it to exploit space-based mineral resources. Included among its technological goals toward this end
is developing fully reusable launch vehicles, nuclear-powered space shuttles, and solar-power
stations to enable mining operations and manufacturing in space.
In the contemporary geopolitical landscape, the world’s economy has become increasingly dependent on space-based technologies. The ability to control space holds significant influence over the global economic order. Modern warfare encompasses various dimensions, including economic strategies that can affect nations without the need for direct military invasion. This highlights the pivotal role of space control in shaping global power dynamics and geopolitical influence.
Amidst economic challenges including slower growth rates, industrial overcapacity, and demographic shifts, China is steering its focus towards the digital economy to sustain stable growth. Initiatives like “Made in China 2025” and Internet Plus exemplify China’s commitment to technological advancement, digitization, and the expansion of its telecommunications, e-commerce, and information technology sectors onto global stages.
A pivotal strategy to achieve these goals is the fusion of state-led infrastructure development with digital connectivity, marking the foundation of the Digital Silk Road. This blueprint has its roots in a 2015 white paper jointly released by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce, emphasizing the construction of cross-border optical cable networks, improvements in international communications connectivity, and the creation of an information Silk Road through spatial (satellite) information pathways, fostering information exchanges and collaboration.
China’s strategic vision extends beyond its borders through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy aimed at enhancing economic and geopolitical ties with nations worldwide. Intrinsically linked to this ambition is the BRI Space Information Corridor, often referred to as the Space Silk Road. This endeavor hinges on leveraging communication, remote sensing, and Beidou navigation satellites to connect participating countries, with a projected completion date in the late 2020s. The Space Silk Road serves multifaceted purposes, including strengthening high-tech industrial collaboration between China and BRI nations, advancing China’s space industry’s global reach, enhancing Chinese space firms’ competitiveness, projecting China as a responsible global player via humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, and elevating the internationalization of China’s space information sector.
China’s initiatives also extend to space collaboration. The Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), founded in 2008, includes member nations such as Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey, facilitating cooperation on space-related endeavors. Moreover, the China International Satellite Service Association (CISSA), established in 2014, comprises enterprises, institutions, and scholars in the aerospace field, with a vision to extend Chinese satellite services globally. Based on the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives, CISSA is planning to construct a space-based “Silk Road” to enhance services along the Belt and Road region.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its annual report released in November 2019, emphasized China’s ambitious objectives in the realm of space. China’s government and military are resolute in their pursuit of leadership, if not dominance, in the space domain, strategically aligning their space program with broader aspirations for political, economic, and military influence on Earth. Beijing’s vision includes securing a prominent position in the emerging space-based economy while gaining a foothold in key segments of the global commercial space industry. This strategy is exemplified by China’s promotion of its space industry through partnerships under the banner of the ‘Space Silk Road.’
The ‘Space Silk Road’: A Strategic Masterpiece
The ‘Space Silk Road’ is a strategic vision that seeks to connect Earth with the cosmos, aligning perfectly with China’s BRI, which aims to enhance connectivity and cooperation across continents. This vision emphasizes the peaceful use of outer space for the benefit of all nations, making space exploration a collaborative and inclusive effort. By promoting international cooperation in space research, satellite deployment, and lunar exploration, China aims to bridge the gap between nations and contribute to the peaceful development of space.
Implications for China’s Global Space Power Ambitions
Technological Advancements: China’s investment in space technology and infrastructure is substantial. The development of its Beidou Navigation System, the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong Space Station, and lunar missions like Chang’e-5 showcase its technological prowess. These advancements not only boost China’s space capabilities but also foster collaboration with other nations, leading to the transfer of space technology and expertise.
China has been actively engaged in international space cooperation, fostering collaboration through data sharing and joint missions. The nation has shared data from its Gaofen Earth-observation satellites with partner countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, promoting global information exchange. Moreover, China’s space agency, CNSA, has extended invitations to scientists worldwide to participate in upcoming lunar exploration missions, such as Chang’e-6, and asteroid exploration missions, showcasing its commitment to collaborative scientific endeavors.
Notably, the launch of the China-Brazil Earth Resource Satellite-4A in 2019 exemplifies fruitful space cooperation between developing nations, while the operational China-France Oceanography Satellite, sent into space in 2018, signifies China’s contributions to advancing global oceanographic research and cooperation in space-related endeavors. These initiatives underscore China’s dedication to international partnerships in space exploration and satellite technology.
The ‘Space Silk Road’ encourages collaboration on a global scale. China has been partnering with various countries and international organizations to jointly explore space.
China’s proactive approach to space cooperation has been increasingly evident through a series of agreements with countries across the globe. As of April 2018, China had reported 121 space cooperation pacts with 37 nations and four international organizations, with a significant focus on bolstering the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and amplifying China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The drive to strengthen internet and telecommunications connections among BRI countries became an integral component of the 13th Five-Year Plan issued by China’s State Council in 2016. Emphasizing the creation of land and sea cable infrastructure, an Internet Silk Road connecting China and Arab States, and the establishment of a China-ASEAN information harbor, this plan underscores China’s commitment to digital connectivity.
Furthermore, China has forged strategic partnerships to expand its communication networks. In late 2017, Huawei Marine collaborated with Pakistani authorities to commence the construction of the Pakistan East Africa Cable Express, connecting Pakistan to Kenya and Djibouti. This venture aimed at enhancing regional connectivity and information exchange.
China’s dedication to developing space-based infrastructure extends to the creation of an extensive communications satellite network, virtual remote sensing satellite constellations, and ground facilities. This evolving system, once completed, promises to provide precise and high-quality satellite navigation services to the Belt and Road region, while concurrently enabling stable, long-term comprehensive monitoring of land, ocean, air, and environmental conditions in the area.
The China Space Station is pivotal in Beijing’s strategy to harness its space presence for diplomatic and scientific gains, furthering its Space Silk Road objectives. By embracing international participants, China aims to establish itself as a formidable contender in space, showcasing the capacity of nations to drive their space technology sectors independently.
In June 2019, the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs and the China Manned Space Agency advanced cooperation through the approval of six experiments from institutions across 17 countries for inclusion on the China Space Station. This initiative fosters international scientific endeavors and exemplifies China’s commitment to collaborative space ventures.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has worked with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), among others, on space research and applications. These collaborations promote diplomatic ties and open doors for more inclusive space exploration.
China Promotes BeiDou via Space Silk Road
China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) is a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that provides positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services to users around the world. BeiDou is China’s alternative to the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS).
In 2020, it completed its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (北斗卫星导航系统), giving China
global navigational autonomy, essential in a global conflict. BeiDou has also enabled China to
include, as a dimension of its Belt and Road Initiative diplomacy, access to a “Space Silk Road”
through the BeiDou satellite network
China is promoting BeiDou via its Space Silk Road strategy. The Space Silk Road is a global initiative to expand China’s space capabilities and influence around the world.
China is promoting BeiDou in a number of ways, including:
- Providing BeiDou services to other countries: China is providing BeiDou services to countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as to other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.
- Cooperating with other countries on BeiDou projects: China is cooperating with other countries on BeiDou projects, such as building ground stations and developing new applications for BeiDou.
- Promoting the use of BeiDou in international standards: China is promoting the use of BeiDou in international standards, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for aviation navigation.
China’s efforts to promote BeiDou are having success. BeiDou is now the second most widely used GNSS in the world, after GPS. BeiDou is used by a variety of industries, including aviation, maritime, transportation, and agriculture.
Here are some of the benefits of BeiDou for countries that adopt it:
- Accuracy: BeiDou is a highly accurate GNSS. It provides positioning accuracy of up to 10 centimeters.
- Reliability: BeiDou is a reliable GNSS. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Affordability: BeiDou is an affordable GNSS. China is providing BeiDou services to other countries free of charge.
Overall, China is making progress in promoting BeiDou via its Space Silk Road strategy. BeiDou is now the second most widely used GNSS in the world, and it is used by a variety of industries. However, China still faces a number of challenges, such as competition from GPS and concerns about security.
China is actively seeking to expand its space cooperation with emerging space nations, particularly within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. The GCC intergovernmental group comprises Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
During the first China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed China’s willingness to collaborate with GCC countries on various space-related endeavors. These collaborations may encompass remote sensing and communications satellites, space utilization, aerospace infrastructure, astronaut selection and training, joint missions to China’s Tiangong space station, and cooperation in lunar and deep space exploration. While these statements demonstrate a clear interest in cooperation, they do not yet entail firm commitments regarding funding or practicalities. China’s growing engagement in international space cooperation aligns with its efforts to broaden its presence in the global space community.
The agreement between China and Saudi Arabia to build a joint space tracking and control station in Saudi Arabia is a significant development in the Space Silk Road strategy. The station will be used to track and control Chinese and Saudi satellites, and to provide services to other countries in the region. This will give China and Saudi Arabia a greater say in how space is used and governed in the Middle East region.
The agreement between China and the United Arab Emirates to cooperate on the development of a new Earth observation satellite is also a significant development in the Space Silk Road strategy. The satellite will be used to monitor climate change, natural disasters, and other environmental issues. This will help China and the United Arab Emirates to better understand and manage these challenges. The UAE and China reached an agreement in September 2023 for the Rashid II rover to fly along with the Chang’e-7 lander targeting the lunar south pole. That mission is currently scheduled for 2026. In a more concrete related development from the summit, Origin Space, a Shenzhen-based space resource utilization firm, announced it will establish a subsidiary, a research and development center and an exhibition center within the China-UAE Industrial Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Zone, a joint project under the Belt and Road Initiative.
The launch of a new satellite for the Belt and Road Initiative and the construction of a new spaceport in Hainan Province are also important developments in the Space Silk Road strategy. The new satellite will provide broadband internet and other communication services to countries along the Belt and Road, which will help to boost economic development in the region. The new spaceport will be used to launch commercial satellites and to support China’s human spaceflight program.
These developments show that China is committed to the Space Silk Road strategy and is making significant investments in space. The Space Silk Road has the potential to significantly transform the global space landscape and to give China a greater say in how space is used and governed.
In addition to the above developments, China is also working on a number of other Space Silk Road initiatives, such as:
- Developing new space technologies, such as reusable rockets and satellite manufacturing
- Building new ground stations and other ground infrastructure
- Providing space services to other countries, such as GPS, broadband internet, and disaster monitoring
- Cooperating with other countries on space-related projects, such as satellite development and space technology development
As China continues to make strides in space exploration and technology, its influence in shaping international space norms and policies grows. The ‘Space Silk Road’ strategy positions China as a key player in the governance of outer space, advocating for its responsible and peaceful use. This influence extends not only to space research but also to economic and geopolitical spheres, strengthening China’s global presence.
China’s space programs exhibit dual-use capabilities that extend into the modern warfare landscape. The contemporary battlefield relies heavily on information, making secure and uninterrupted communication vital. China’s development of smartphones and mobile communication satellites serves as a prime example. These technologies offer the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the advantage of global beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) communication, ensuring secure transmission of voice, video, and data to ground, naval, and aerial tactical forces while on the move. This capability proves invaluable for small units of special operators operating in remote and isolated environments, allowing them to maintain seamless contact with each other and their central command, enhancing situational awareness and mission success.
China’s ‘Space Silk Road’ strategy is a testament to its commitment to becoming a global space power while fostering international collaboration. By integrating this strategy with its BRI, China is not only expanding its footprint in space exploration but also deepening its ties with nations around the world. As we witness China’s remarkable achievements in space, it becomes increasingly clear that the future of space exploration will be marked by cooperation, innovation, and shared knowledge, transcending earthly borders and connecting us to the stars.
China’s first mobile telecom satellite successfully launched
China sent a mobile communications satellite the Tiantong 1 into orbit on top of a Long March 3B rocket,on Aug 2016 from the Xichang launch base in southwest China’s Sichuan province. The Xinhua news agency said Tiantong 1 “is the first satellite of China’s home-made satellite mobile telecom system, and a key part of the country’s space information infrastructure.” More satellites will be launched to expand the mobile telecom network, Chinese state media reported.
Designed by the China Academy of Space Technology, Tiantong 1 will connect users on the move who are not equipped with large antennas. Similar mobile satellite network, such as the commercial Inmarsat system, include hand-held terminals for subscribers to connect from remote locales. Xinhua reported the Tiantong system will reach users in China, the Middle East, Africa and other regions. The network’s ground service will be operated by China Telecom, official news reports said.