China is proceeding with ambitious space development with the goal of becoming a great space power. Undoubtedly, China is now one of the world’s leading countries in space development. In recent years, China’s ambitions in this arena have aggravated the US, such that space development has become a de facto arena for strategic competition between the US and China. Of particular significance is the military use of outer space. As the socioeconomic lives of people being increasingly dependent on space systems, so too is the prospect of outer space becoming a battlefield. The Xi Jinping administration itself is advancing space development with an emphasis on national security.
Most space-related technologies are dual-use. Because of this, China's military-civil fusion (MCF) strategy, which was upgraded by the Xi administration to a national strategy in March 2015, is having a significant impact on China’s space development landscape. In the past, the Chinese space industry was dominated by state-owned corporations and research institutes affiliated with China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC) and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). However, since the Chinese government opened up the space sector to private capital in 2014, new private space companies have mushroomed, with the commercial space sector rapidly growing by more than 20% and counting.
... this dual policy of opening up the Chinese space industry to private actors while also shifting to domestic production gives rise to several issues.
Although the rise of these private companies is not directly linked to military space power, it has a part to play in the advancement of China's space capabilities, and any new technologies developed may be used by the military in the future. Moreover, these companies, often beneficiaries of the Chinese government's industrial policy, will likely engage in intense competition with US firms in the international commercial space sector, especially at the low-end.
Meanwhile, in tandem with the MCF, the Xi administration is gearing its space industry towards domestic production. In line with its ambitious technology target called “Made in China 2025”, it aims to increase the ratio of domestic production in its space-related supply chain. Beijing believes that by developing its space industry and technologies, as well as recalibrating its supply chains, it will enhance its self-reliance in space systems, which makes up one aspect of the country’s space defence capability.
However, this dual policy of opening up the Chinese space industry to private actors while also shifting to domestic production gives rise to several issues.
For one, this is at odds with the promotion of international cooperation in the space sector. In its most recent “China’s Space Program: A 2021 Perspective” white paper, the Chinese government declared its commitment to fostering a new paradigm of international space cooperation. In accordance with this policy, the Chinese government is providing developing countries with the ability to launch satellites and promoting space technology cooperation with other countries. Moreover, many of the individuals working in China’s new space companies used to work or are still working at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) research institutes, exacerbating Western developed countries’ deep-seated wariness of China’s commercial space sector.
... this may ruin the chances of Chinese companies and researchers learning from the advanced countries if they are suspected of having ties with the PLA. This situation faced by the Chinese government can be called the “MCF dilemma”.
Another issue is that in the long run, China will need to develop its space technologies through conducting technology and people exchanges with advanced countries. However, for national security reasons, the Xi administration does not want to rely on Western companies for its core technologies and is promoting the MCF to speed up domestic production. But Western countries are wary of China’s MCF strategy and this may ruin the chances of Chinese companies and researchers learning from the advanced countries if they are suspected of having ties with the PLA. This situation faced by the Chinese government can be called the “MCF dilemma”.
Another issue is that a legal system needs to be put in place with the opening up of the space sector to private actors. In advancing national defence science and technology reforms, there has been a debate about how intellectual property rights and information integrity of private companies entering the arms industry can be legally protected. The question is essentially about strengthening private companies’ resource mobilisation capacity while minimising their hurdles and concerns when entering the arms industry.
With this in mind, how the MCF development law is legislated within the legislation plan of the 13th National People’s Congress until 2023 will greatly affect private companies’ entry into space military use programmes in China. Another question that has surfaced is the extent to which the Chinese government can be considerate of and accommodate the interests and norms of domestic actors supporting the development of emerging technologies in space development. The Xi administration will have to deal with these kinds of challenges as well.
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