Space Programme

Space invaders

Washington gets jittery about Beijing’s goals for satellite industry


Going like a rocket: China plans to dramatically up its satellite launches

Chinese scientist Jiang Bo was on a Beijing-bound plane when he was stopped by FBI agents on March 16. Suspected of sneaking state secrets out of the United States, the former NASA employee was detained for six weeks for interrogation. The spy drama ended last week in bizarre fashion. A federal court ruled Jiang had carried no classified information on his NASA laptop. In fact, the only material that could be classed as a problem was of the pornographic variety. Oops.

But perhaps 31 year-old Jiang shouldn’t feel too dejected. The last space scientist to undergo such public rejection by the US authorities ended up as the “father” of China’s space programme. “Is this the same as what happened to that other guy kicked out of USA? Back in China he helped create their first A-bomb and rockets?” one wit wondered on

That “other guy”, Qian Xuesen, was branded a Communist spy and suffered five years of house arrest. The scientist, who died in 2009, was then swapped for US pilots captured in the Korean War (see WiC38). Former US Navy Secretary Dan Kimball would later describe the deal as the “stupidest thing this country ever did”.

A talent like Qian might come but once a century. But the political fireworks over the perceived China threat to US security – on land and in space – are far more frequent. For instance, the Pentagon has been busy defending itself from domestic criticism for using a Chinese commercial satellite to provide communication support for American personnel in Africa. The satellite in question, Apstar-7, was developed by French firm Thales Alenia but is owned and operated by APT Satellite, the Hong Kong-listed unit of state-owned China Satellite Communications Corp (CSCC). In a Congress hearing late last month, lawmakers warned that the lease deal compromised national security as “China may seek to turn off our eyes and ears at the time of their choosing”.

In its own annual report to Congress on China’s military development, the US Department of Defense also gave significant coverage to China’s fast-developing space capabilities. The report, which was published a fortnight ago, pointedly noted that former PLA Air Force Commander General Xu Qiliang (who publicly retracted an assertion in 2009 that the militarisation of space was a “historic inevitability”) had been promoted to the PLA’s number two job.

Chinese media responded to the coverage with barbed remarks. China News Service scoffed that the Americans were “jealous of the rapid development of China’s satellite industry”. Western countries used to dominate the market, the Global Times agreed, but China is catching up quickly in making and launching commercial satellites.

WiC readers should be well informed on China’s space ambitions (see WiC117 and WiC125). But aerospace activities in China have been so vibrant lately it isn’t easy to keep track. According to CSCC, which is chaired by (former premier) Wen Jiabao’s son Wen Yunsong, China has robust goals for the satellite business. The government wants Chinese firms plan to expand their market share in commercial satellite launches to 15% in 2020 from 3% today.

Many of those will lift off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in Hainan province. Expected to be completed later this year, the new centre will allow China to conduct launches that have heavier payloads but at competitive prices.

There are also hopes that China’s satellite navigational system, known as Beidou, is starting to challenge the American global positional standard, or GPS. Beidou pulled in Thailand as its first overseas client last month.

These new space capacities, even if shunned by foreign governments, could capture corporate business internationally and will also find robust domestic demand. Satellites could also provide an “ideal channel” for Chinese media to expand overseas, says the Hong Kong Economic Times, helping Beijing to bulk up its “soft power” abroad.

Against such a backdrop, Chinese satellite firms have made a strong showing in an otherwise lacklustre stock market. The share price of APT Satellite has surged 165% so far this year, making it one of the best performing state-controlled stocks. Its counterpart Asia Satellite, a unit of another state heavyweight Citic Group, has climbed 20%.

But China’s satellite boom owes its very origin to something that was deemed disposable in the US. China’s first commercial satellite, launched in April 1990. Known as AsiaSat 1, it actually began life as WeStar 6, a US module that the spaceshuttle Challenger failed to put into orbit in 1984. It was later brought back to earth and subsequently resold in 1988 to Asia Satellite – then a joint venture between the Citic Group, Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa and Britain’s Cable & Wireless.

Evidently much has changed since then. In fact, the situation even seems different to 2011 when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that space was promising territory for a “strategic dialogue” with China. Now, that prospect seems a galaxy away. Instead the Congressional chatter is of how Beijing might one day threaten the United States homeland from space.

On the Chinese side the idea is dismissed as illusory – and an attempt at commercial diversion. The “China threat” theory will always prevail, the Global Times quipped this month, “whenever American gunmakers need to do some lobbying”.

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