- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

A new strategic influence in world politics was heralded with the thunder of the blast off of taikonaut Lt. Col. Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. His successful orbital flight is an unmistakable signal of China’s ambitions that U.S. policy-makers will doubtlessly follow closely.

China maintains that its space program is intended “purely for peaceful purposes.” However, the program is actually run by the People’s Liberation Army, and beyond the propaganda the government is generating from the prestige of the launch, the strategic implications of the Shenzhou are unmistakable. On the battlefields of this information age, space is the ultimate high ground — critical for gathering intelligence, detecting targets and targeting weapons. The previous two Shenzhou orbiters are believed to have carried electronic intelligence-gathering equipment, and the Shenzhou 5 was believed to have aboard two cameras useful for reconnaissance. Since 1970, China has launched 77 satellites, and it is spending about $2 billion each year on its space program. Last month, China announced that it had reached an agreement with Europe to participate in the Galileo satellite network. Once launched (the first satellite is expected to go up in 2005), the network will provide navigation functions similar to the Global Positioning System.

China clearly intends to expand its presence in space. The Shenzhou has a docking port that could be used to tie into a space station. In addition to a planned space station (the first Soviet space stations were largely used for intelligence-gathering purposes), the government also has plans for a space telescope and a series of manned missions to the moon. The space station might be launched to coincide with the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and a story in the People’s Daily earlier this month suggested that the government hopes to send a robotic probe to the moon within three years.

Some have suggested that the mission was brought about by little more than purchased Soviet (specifically Soyuz) rockets and stolen U.S. technology. That’s too simple. While it is not clear how wide China’s technical base is, its engineers have clearly made improvements to the Soyuz rocket — including better guidance and control equipment, upgraded engines and a launch escape system, which the Soyuz lacked.

As the Space Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, Elliot G. Pulham, pointed out, “It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the importance of this event … Unless America wishes to further cede its leadership in space, we need to take this launch as a very serious wake up call.” The United States must keep a wary eye on China’s capabilities and intentions.

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