China’s first manned space mission should serve as a warning that Beijing is serious about becoming a “peer competitor” of the United States.  Some commentators mocked the Chinese effort as being far behind the achievements of the U.S. space program.  Yet no other country—not even the supposedly more advanced Japan nor any European state—has accomplished this feat.  Each has lacked the ambition needed to commit vital resources to such a program.

The U.S. space program has been crippled since the loss of Columbia last February.  The space shuttles were designed in the 1970’s, and Columbia first flew in 1981.  Her onboard technology had been surpassed by what is available to teenagers in their video-game systems, and her engines and structural features were outdated.  The technology now available to China could close the gap in capabilities very quickly.  China is considering a manned space station and trips to the moon within the decade.

The last U.S. moon landing was in 1972.  The space-station project has moved at a snail’s pace because of a general lack of interest in Washington.  The stirring visions of giant space stations, commercial shuttle flights, and extensive moon bases in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey have become a sad testimony to three decades of missed opportunities.  The United States even decided to “internationalize” the space station in the hope that other, less affluent but perhaps more imaginative states might foot part of the bill.  China’s new initiative should shake the United States out of her apathy.

China’s manned space program is explicitly martial in orientation.  Though clearly linked to military space projects, NASA is chartered as a civilian organization, and many have hoped that the exploration of space could be conducted peacefully.  There are few such illusions in China.  Beijing’s manned space program is led by the director of the General Armament Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who also sits on the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party.  Commenting on the flight, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily claimed, “Manned spacecraft can carry out missions of reconnaissance and surveillance better and enable the military to deploy, repair and assemble military satellites that could monitor and direct and control military forces on Earth.”

By 2006, China hopes to launch four high-resolution electro-optical satellites and four cloud-penetrating radar satellites, which will allow monitoring of any target on Earth twice daily.  China is also investing in an indigenous navigation-satellite program and in the new European Galileo navigation-satellite program.  These orbital assets could be used to direct guided ballistic or cruise missiles against mobile targets, such as naval battle groups or rapidly deploying expeditionary forces.  While countering U.S. military power is Beijing’s top concern, the development of these new capabilities would provide even larger advantages over any of China’s potential rivals along the Pacific arc from India to Japan.

Beijing’s current minister of defense, Gen. Cao Gangchuan, was once the director of the General Armament Department, having moved to that position from minister of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) when the departments were reorganized.  He took over COSTIND after a series of satellite-rocket failures, and, since then, every Chinese space launch has been a success.  This improvement has largely been the result of the illegal aid given the Chinese missile program by American corporations Hughes Aerospace and Loral, who, along with Lockheed-Martin, have provided Beijing with communications satellites and associated technology.  Cao has also been a key link between the PLA and the Russian military-industrial complex, which has sold China an array of advanced weapons and space-related technology in recent years.  In these posts, Cao continued the work of his COSTIND predecessor, Gen. Ding Henggao, who expressed the central Chinese view that “world competition is essentially about comprehensive national power, and the key is the competition in science and technology.”

The plots that really menace America’s future are not being hatched in Afghan caves but in the laboratories and factories, boardrooms and government ministries, of rival major powers such as China.  As that competition moves into space, it is not just the geopolitics of the Earth below but the future arc of human civilization that is at stake.