Chapter 9 The Development of Aerospace Science and Technology and Industry in China
Division of Chinese Politics, Military and Warfighting Concepts
Shiow-Wen Wang Assistant Research Fellow
China’s aerospace science and technology1 made significant progress in 2021. First, China’s space station construction kicked off this year. On April 29, the launch vehicle “Long March 5B” sent China’s Tiangong space station core module, Tianhe, into Earth’s orbit. On June 17, the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft delivered three astronauts to the core module of Tianhe, where they stayed for three months and carried out robotic arm operations, extravehicular work, space experiments and various critical technology verification before returning to Earth on September 17. Secondly, the Chinese Mars probe Tianwen-1 on May 15 successfully landed on the southern Utopia Planitia of Mars after entering orbit around Mars in February. The Zhurong Mars rover, carried by Tianwen-1, has spent more than 140 days on the planet by mid-October, with the goal of exploring the terrain and climatic features of the planet and looking for signs of the presence of water or ice.
These are major breakthroughs in Chinese aerospace science and technology in the very short term, following the successful launch of the Long March 5B launch vehicle, the return of lunar soil samples by Chang’e 5 and the activation of the BeiDou-3 global satellite navigation system in 2020. In particular, the Tiangong space station is scheduled for completion in 2022 and is likely to replace the International Space Station (ISS), which will be decommissioned in 2024, as the only space station in low-Earth orbit. Moreover, China has become the second country after the United States to successfully land on Mars in its first exploration of the planet. In 2018, China ranked first in the world in terms of the number of spacecraft launches, and from 2020 onwards, it has scheduled even more launches in preparation for the gradual realization of the Chinese “space dream.”
China’s primary objective in developing aerospace science and technology is to dominate space. Large-scale projects such as missile/rocket launches, satellite networks, planetary exploration and manned spaceflight were initially developed for military purposes, and only later for economic and social development purposes. Aerospace science and technology is itself a dual-use technology, and China’s military-civilian integration policy gives top priority to military applications. However, the economic benefits of aerospace science and technology are far greater than the Chinese military could ever have imagined, even when combined with emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to drive a range of innovative activities from basic research to human resources cultivation. Particularly, Satellite Internet was included in April 2020 as one of China’s “new infrastructure construction” projects, which means that satellite networks would constitute one of China’s national infrastructure priorities during the 14th Five-Year Period, and its military and commercial applications are worthy of continued attention.
The Chinese government is making every effort to build a strong aerospace nation, with the aim of achieving the goal of establishing a modern and strong socialist country by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. How is China developing its aerospace science and technology? Through what mechanism? What capabilities and foundations are in place for military and commercial applications? What are the future trends? This chapter will attempt to address these issues.
 The term “hang-tian” (航天, aerospace) used in China refers to the interplanetary flight of man-made satellites and spacecraft around the Earth or within the solar system, and is somewhat different from the terms “hang-tai” (航太, space flight) and “tai-kong” (太空, space) used in Taiwan. In order to retain the original meaning, the term “hang-tian” (航天) is used hereinafter.