CHINA WATCHHow China’s Military Plugs into the Global Space Sector

By Samuel Strickland

Published 27 October 2022

China is using seemingly civilian and academic Chinese research institutions to advance its military goals in space. International organizations like the International GNSS Service need to be aware that even overtly civilian entities can be intertwined with the Chinese military. Collaboration with high-risk Chinese institutions must be done with extreme care to ensure data and products intended to support international science and commerce are not redirected towards unwanted military uses.

In August, a photograph of China’s Dalian shipyard surfaced on Chinese social media site Weibo showing five hulls of Luyang III–type vessels under construction. Once completed, these destroyers will sail out into blue waters, projecting the might of the Chinese navy and carrying with them a lethal high-tech projectile—the YJ-18A missile. Able to severely damage a warship with tens of thousands of tons of displacement in a single strike, the YJ-18A can sprint up to Mach 3.0 before impact and carry a 300-kilogram warhead. The result is a serious threat to US carrier strike groups in the South China Sea and beyond.

While the YJ-18A is designed to skim just five to 10 meters above sea level, it is also an example of China’s growing sophistication in outer space. The missile, designed to be almost impossible to intercept, relies on a constellation of Chinese satellites known as BeiDou.

While the civilian benefits are numerous, BeiDou is primarily a military technology. Similar to the United States’ GPS, China’s BeiDou is used to provide position, navigation and timing services to users. The catalyst for the development of this satellite system was likely the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. During a campaign of electoral intimidation aimed at Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army fired missiles into the strait. However, the campaign backfired when a disruption to its GPS access caused China to lose track of its own missiles. BeiDou was announced shortly afterwards.

The BeiDou system was completed In June 2020. The final launch was a colossal national achievement, representing the culmination of two decades of work at a cost of more than US$9 billion. President Xi Jinping celebrated the finished system as a shining example of China’s ‘great rejuvenation’ as a superpower.

Yet, BeiDou is also a shining example of China’s military–civil fusion strategy.

Xi has favored military–civil fusion as a method to harness entrepreneurs, researchers and scholars to spur the development of the PLA. The strategy aims to create an ecosystem in which even overtly civilian companies and universities collaborate with the military.

In the case of BeiDou, China has leveraged many of its academic researchers and their partners to propel its creation and refinement. One prominent example of this is Wuhan University.