China may need to adjust its approach toward SpaceX

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun24,2024

The fourth test flight of Starship saw the rocket booster smoothly splash down in the Gulf of Mexico while the upper spacecraft achieved a controlled reentry, fulfilling key mission objectives. According to the design parameters, Starship will be capable of carrying up to 150 metric tons and will be fully reusable, becoming the most powerful superheavy launch vehicle ever developed in history.

Beyond Starship, SpaceX’s competitive edge lies in its capability to launch commercial payloads in high frequency with its fully-fledged rockets such as Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. In 2023, SpaceX conducted 98 space launches, compared to China’s 67 and Russia’s 19. And SpaceX delivered far more payload mass to orbit: 1,286 tons of payloads, accounting for 80% of the globe. What’s more, launch costs for the Falcon series are capped at $3,000 per kilogram, which is significantly lower than the global commercial spaceflight market average of $10,000 to $20,000 per kilogram.

There’s no doubt that SpaceX has achieved great success since it started up in 2002. Often described as a game-changer, SpaceX is now more or less reshaping the world aerospace industry. Under the intensifying China-United States competition, the comparison between SpaceX and China’s aerospace industry has become a heated issue. As is known, the development of China’s aerospace industry is dominated by the state. No wonder some assert that the private sector is more efficient than the state apparatus when they comment on the progress made by SpaceX. It’s worth noting that even China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the largest state-run aerospace company of China, has officially acknowledged that it’s “larger in size but weaker in capabilities” compared to SpaceX, asks practitioners to “always keep humble” and “resolutely overcome pride and complacency.” CASC is considered synonymous with China’s aerospace industry, so such a statement is an acknowledgment of the gap between China’s aerospace industry and SpaceX. And this year, China Central Television cited SpaceX when it highlighted the necessity of developing the commercial aerospace industry.

However, it is essential to consider a broader perspective on the rise of such an aerospace giant under the current geopolitical circumstance, instead of simply “learning from it in modesty.” In other words, how could China develop a more pragmatic view on SpaceX?

Initially, is it too hasty for CASC to draw this conclusion? Though SpaceX excels in developing launch vehicles, the field of aerospace encompasses a vast array of systemic engineering challenges of which launch vehicle development is only one component. It’s superficial to evaluate the overall strength of a space program based solely on one or few facets.

Picture this: if launch vehicle capacity were the sole determining factor for aerospace missions, China would have been able to collect samples from the far side of the moon and even land on Mars as early as the 1990s. Both lunar probe Chang’e 6 and Mars probe Tianwen-1 are no more than 8.2 tons, while launch vehicle Long March 2E, which came into service in 1990, is able to carry 9 tons of goods. However, the fact is that space missions are much more complex beyond the challenges of just reaching orbit. After entering the transfer orbit, the launch vehicle will separate from a probe. But there’s still a long way to go before the ultimate destination, and that part of a mission requires support from navigation devices, deep-space communication networks, high-precision radars, energy supply units, spacecraft attitude control systems, variable thrust engines, obstacle avoidance algorithms and so on. Does SpaceX master all of these technologies? The fact is that SpaceX, with an ambition of Mars colonization, has not yet flown beyond the earth orbits while China has already succeeded in orbiting, landing on and patrolling both the moon and Mars. And those Mars landing missions that achieved final success in the U.S., from Opportunity in 2004 to Perseverance in 2020, were all led by NASA and conducted by thousands of suppliers and research institutes at home and abroad, not by a single SpaceX alone.

Even within earth orbits, SpaceX is not an undisputed leader. Can SpaceX independently build and operate a space station of the third-generation technical standards like China? The answer is no. Of course, SpaceX owns Starlink, the largest low-orbit satellite constellation for high-speed internet service around the world. But China also maintains the largest global navigation satellite system.

Whether SpaceX outperforms China’s aerospace industry is a debatable issue, because SpaceX does not have the same comprehensive technical and industrial system as a national program. Only when comparing with the entirety of the U.S. space program can we definitely say China’s aerospace industry is “larger in size but weaker in capabilities.”

More crucially, against the background of escalating China-U.S. conflict, what practical significance does SpaceX hold for China? In essence, SpaceX is at least a passive spokesperson of U.S. interests, which means the development of SpaceX fails to directly contribute to China’s welfare.

Though China may be open to space cooperations with various organizations, including SpaceX, long-arm jurisdiction can easily ruin the prospect of cooperation. From the Cox Report to the Wolf Amendment, Washington consistently endeavored to contain the development of China’s aerospace industry by stifling its opportunities for international cooperation as much as possible. Though the Wolf Amendment only prohibits space cooperations between U.S. governmental agencies like NASA and their Chinese counterparts or China-affiliated entities, and private sectors like SpaceX are not included, effective cooperation between SpaceX and China remains impossible due to additional impediments imposed by the White House such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, Export Administration Regulations and Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Any products, services or technologies output to China will be subject to rigorous scrutiny, and it’s highly probable that relevant transactions won’t be finalized.

The situation would still remain under control if SpaceX’s operation didn’t extend beyond commercial activities. Yet SpaceX is not only involved in U.S. intervention on the regional order but also threatens China’s national security and development interests.

SpaceX has cooperated with the U.S. military multiple times. In March 2022, Starlink satellites transmitted data to F35A stealth fighters of the U.S. Air Force at a speed of 160 Mbps in a test, which is 30 times faster than the conventional connection method. And Starlink has engaged in intelligence transmission for the Ukrainian army, enhanced the precision of striking Russian troops in the ongoing Ukraine war. And there’s the launch of Starshield, the military variation of Starlink at the end of 2022. Recently, the Pentagon has been coordinating with SpaceX to blunt Russia’s unauthorized use of Starlink internet terminals. Given the U.S.’s designation of China as its greatest rival, it’s quite possible that Starlink will similarly be used for military purposes against China.

Certainly, the public is entitled to debate the nature of the war and hold the belief that SpaceX is assisting the party being invaded by Russia, but acts that threaten and undermine the security of other countries’ space assets are explicitly prohibited by relevant international laws. Unfortunately, in 2021, Starlink satellites even approached China’s space station at high speed more than once, posing dangers to the astronauts on board. China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that those satellites performed continuous orbital maneuvers with unspecified intentions, prompting the space station to undertake preventive collision avoidance measures. The Outer Space Treaty regulates that states party to the Treaty shall immediately inform other state parties to the Treaty or U.N. Secretary General of any phenomena they discover in outer space which could constitute a danger to the life or health of astronauts. But SpaceX and other U.S. agencies neither gave a prior notification nor provided an explanation for these abnormal maneuvers. It’s hard to imagine how catastrophic the consequences of such a collision would be. Damaging the station, one of the most important national assets, would absolutely be a destructive blow to China’s aerospace program. More risk management and pre-warning should be imposed on this company.

It may be prudent for China to adopt an approach toward SpaceX characterized by strategic despise and tactical emphasis. For China’s aerospace sector, it’s necessary to evaluate SpaceX’s capabilities in a more objective manner, to avoid both underestimation and overestimation, and then draw more accurate comparisons to itself. Meanwhile, China should clearly define its strategic priorities while taking the entire U.S. aerospace industry as its primary reference frame, as a target for catching up, rather than allowing SpaceX to disrupt its overall plans. What’s more, China must make better sense of SpaceX’s limitations in the broader geopolitical context, as well as the zero-sum relationship between China and the U.S.

Chengxin Zhang is a researcher and doctoral candidate specializing in international political economics. His research concentrates on international competition and cooperation across various industrial sectors, including aerospace and its influence on the global order. He is affiliated with the School of Politics and International Relations at Lanzhou University, China, and holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Jinan University, China.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

Related Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *