Thoughts About “China’s Space Narrative”



Using Judgement, In Fear of Being Judged


As a researcher, writer, editor, etc. I would like to think I have some grasp, or at least an inkling, of the pitfalls, errors, and other challenges in publishing a space industry report. It’s easier when there’s a team of people backing you up, catching errors in an already-quadruple-checked report. The best kind of folks helping are the ones who catch sentences that don’t make sense, numbers that don’t add up, and so on.


This is all to say that I still try hard to make sure everything is as accurate, readable, and factual as possible whenever numbers are mentioned. In the world of the space industry, finding facts can be a difficult task to accomplish, especially when the same company cites different attributes, such as mass, for the same product, such as a satellite.


It’s irritating, because when confronted with multiple “facts,” a researcher then needs to rely on that dreaded responsibility--professional judgment. I have to decide which fact is the best, asking questions, but typically never receiving a response. But boy, do I hoard the references when I use judgment in my research--just in case someone has questions. And once a report I’ve worked on is published, there’s a bit of dread about whether someone will find an error I didn’t catch.


Sometimes I will be that someone.


CASI’s Report (and Inaccuracies)


Which brings me to the latest report, “CHINA'S SPACE NARRATIVE EXAMINING THE PORTRAYAL OF THE US-CHINA SPACE RELATIONSHIP IN CHINESE SOURCES AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITED STATES,” published by the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). Just introduced last week, it is a fascinating report, with 74 pages of content (before getting to the report’s appendices).


The report concludes:

To date, China’s success in space can be attributed, in large part, to top-level leadership recognition of the benefits of space power, consistent planning, and stable and ample funding. US. success in competing with China will need to rely on the same fundamentals.

There are many reasons to disagree with the second part of that conclusion, which I won’t get into in this analysis.


When reading through these types of reports, I am not looking for mistakes. But after researching this industry for so long, factual inaccuracies tend to surface quite quickly. This means, in this case, that while this CASI report contains some useful potential insights, their value must be tempered with the fact there are inaccuracies within it.


There are errors in figures used to support certain report narratives. For example, in the report’s discussion about China’s commercial space companies and market value (page 34), the authors’ note:

Considering the small size of the commercial space sector in China and its limited technological level, Futureaerospace’s projected growth of China’s commercial space market may be overly optimistic. The think tank foresees the domestic market’s growth as being fueled by a major uptick in satellite launch, arguing that China may launch as many as 3,100 commercial satellites by 2025.[206] Reaching this figure, however, would mean that China will need to launch more than 500 satellites annually—more than any other country has ever launched on an annual basis. In 2018, for example, the global combined total for satellites launched into orbit was 110. As of September 2019, China had only 323 operational satellites, 56 of which are commercial. In 2018, it launched just 25 commercial satellites.

The world’s nations and operators deployed more satellites into Earth orbit during 2018 than 110--they deployed over 450. About 16% (~70) of those 450+ were Chinese-operated satellites, which indicates slightly more than a third of those ~70 satellites were commercial--based on CASI’s definition. If CASI’s referenced 2019 satellite number is accurate, it means ~22% of China’s 323 satellites were deployed in 2018. (Data I’m bringing forward is referencing the Space Foundation’s “The Space Report, 2019 Q1.” The data was collected using great primary sources.)


It’s very likely the authors confused that number--110--between satellites and launches. There were 110 successful orbital rocket launches in 2018. Thirty-nine of those 110 global launches were from China. Mistakes do happen, but it’s concerning to see this type of error--confusion between a satellite deployment and a rocket launch--in a report focused on China’s space efforts. Especially given that the organization generating the information, CASI, has a mission to “...advance understanding of the capabilities, development, operating concepts, strategy, doctrine, personnel, organization, and limitations of China's aerospace forces.”


How can CASI accomplish that mission if some of the report’s facts are inaccurate?


Grasping Defeat from the Jaws of Success?


Not mentioned in CASI’s report, but essential to bring up for those concerned about China’s “competitive edge” in the global space market--only two satellites manufactured and deployed by China were for two foreign operators. That’s two out of 26 customers for China’s satellite manufacturers. Indicating that, at least in 2018, China hadn’t successfully won many foreign customers for its space products, but there was high domestic demand.


The lack of foreign customers for China’s space products isn’t surprising and is a challenge the private commercial space companies in China have wrestled with for years. There is a credibility issue with Chinese companies generally, and Chinese space companies specifically. The initial challenge that China’s most well-meaning private commercial companies face is China’s history of not protecting property rights. But a second challenge is now coming to the fore--the nation’s ruling elite, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


Last week, the CCP issued what amounts to loyalty mandates from its private commercial companies. And while Chinese private companies were never truly free to operate compared to U.S. companies, one can only imagine what this mandate does--requiring explicit displays of loyalty to keep the CCP off their backs.. These overt requirements of China’s private companies will chase away foreign customers. They will result in China’s companies relying on Chinese customers for their businesses (and possibly customers from a few Belt and Road Initiative countries).


These private companies were already under siege from the CCP, according to CASI. At the same time, they are saddled with the expectation that they will somehow help drive costs of state-owned enterprise (SOE) competitors down:

China currently does not expect its commercial space sector to produce the world’s next SpaceX, nor does it foresee major innovations in space technologies coming from private Chinese companies. Instead, China hopes that in developing its commercial space industry, it can help offset government expenditures and improve the efficiency of its SOEs involved in the domestic space program. In the future, Chinese commercial space companies may be useful in driving down the cost of existing technologies and may provide the Chinese government with more options for acquiring products and services.

Has there ever been an instance of gaining costs or efficiencies and becoming more competitive while contracting and confining a sector’s potential customer-base to within a country? Even if that nation’s basis for doing so is to “protect” the businesses that will be harmed by its actions? CASI seems to believe Xi Jinping’s (the leader of the CCP and China) decisions could break the country’s private commercial space sector:

Other, perhaps more powerful, policy decisions appear to have the potential to retard the development of China’s commercial space sector, however. Despite the 2014 document promoting private investment and funding in Chinese SOEs and advocating the break up of monopolies, China under Xi Jinping has emphasized and prioritized the role of SOEs in China’s economy. Xi has called for SOEs to become “stronger, better, and bigger,” stating that China “will further reform SOEs, develop mixed-ownership economic entities, and turn Chinese enterprises into world-class, globally competitive firms.”202 Speaking in 2018, Xi noted that “such statements as ‘there should be no state-owned enterprises’ and ‘we should have smaller- scale state-owned enterprises’ are wrong and slanted.”

Jinping’s latest actions last week confirm that the CCP doesn’t understand what’s fundamentally making the nation prosperous and competitive. Power consolidation and loyalty mandates (which by their nature means the loyalty is unearned) appear to be the only things that matter.


The CCP’s latest mandates weren’t in place when the CASI report was published. However, it appears that consistent planning and a stable funding source are about to become a thing of the past for China’s space programs. These types of decisions will harm the nation’s space sector.

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