Written by James A. Lewis.

Manned spaceflight is not economically rewarding. Nor does it provide military advantage, which is best gained from unmanned craft. The scientific benefits of manned spaceflight have long been exhausted since most programs only repeat things done decades ago. But manned spaceflight is not without profit when measured by its political and strategic gains. China’s manned space programs are intended to demonstrate China’s return to power to the world, and more importantly, to the Chinese themselves.

By sending people into space, China is making a statement about its global position. There are only three nations that have put people into orbit. Manned spaceflight is the trapping of superpower status. China’s manned space program is a demonstration that China has returned to the top tier on the global stage.

The contrast with the other “superpowers” must be pleasing to the Chinese. Russia’s space program is in decline as its engineering base erodes, a decline slowed but not stopped by infusions of money from President Putin. Its manned program depends on legacy Soviet equipment. The Americans, despite spending billions of dollars, are indecisive and let slip their ability to put humans into orbit. The U.S. also depends on a legacy program (the space station) and has no serious plans for manned exploration, since proposed voyages to Mars are so far in the future that they provide no strategic benefit. Only China has an active manned program with regular launches and attainable goals.

This is not a space race. A larger political contest drove the space race of the 1960s, where each side sought to demonstrate its technological prowess (with obvious military implications) and the advantages of its economic system. The Russians are no longer competing and the Americans appear convinced that their space race victory forty years ago continues to bestow leadership. Nor is China seeking to export the China dream or whatever slogan it uses to justify a single party’s unbreakable rule over a managed market economy. Unlike the Soviets or the Americans, China has no Universalist values to promote and so far defines its foreign policy as a reassertion of its historic status and an effort to avoid a largely imaginary encirclement by foes.

The effect of the space program on China’s neighbors is unclear, in part because their perceptions of China are shaped by its assertive foreign policy and various low-level maritime and border clashes. The exceptions are Japan and India, which see space as an area of competition. If there is a space race with China, it is with these two countries, with India in particular trying to match Chinese accomplishments.

China’s manned space program is not impressive in its technology or its goals. It is essentially a copy of Soviet and American programs from the 1970s.  What is impressive is China’s steadfast pursuit of space. This has been a hallmark of the Chinese space program since the 1950s (when it was closely linked to developing ICBMs). The Chinese government nurtured the manned space program for decades (the first Chinese manned project – Shugaung – began in the late 1960s, but was halted during the Cultural Revolution). The Shenzhou capsules are the products of an effort that is decades old and reflects China’s historic drive to modernize itself, restore its independence, and return to what it views as its rightful place in the world.

The date of the first manned Shenzhou mission is an indicator of China’s thinking about the strategic role of manned spaceflight. The capsule and taikonaut returned to on earth October 16, the date when China exploded its first nuclear weapon. Not widely remarked in the West, China’s press noted this anniversary in its accounts of Shenzhou 5 and for many Chinese, the events are linked. The intent is not militaristic, but a visible demonstration of China’s return to great power status. China’s President at the time, Hu Jintao, called Shenzhou 5 “an historic step taken by the Chinese people in their endeavor to surmount the peak of the world’s science and technology.” In another act of political symbolism, Shenzhou carried a “secret cargo” that was revealed at the return ceremony to include seeds from Taiwan. The launch was an act of political symbolism aimed at a domestic audience.

China has said that its space program will concentrate its resources on “a limited number of projects that are of ‘vital significance’ to the nation.” A review of what China builds and launches suggests that the primary goal of China’s space efforts are to demonstrate national power and technological prowess. A desire to demonstrate self-reliance often seems to impel space activities. A 2011 White Paper reported “rapid progress” and “breakthroughs” in space, following an earlier White Paper that called for “eye-catching achievements” in space.

The most eye-catching of these will be a manned lunar landing. The Chinese say they will do this before 2030 and while they face technical obstacles, their steady pursuit of spaceflight guarantees they will get there. The economic rationale for lunar exploration is dubious – immense capital and transport costs do not justify mineral exploitation. Nor is there any military advantage to a lunar presence. However, it is hard to see how a global audience will interpret a Chinese landing on the Moon while the U.S. sits on the sidelines as anything but the arrival of a new leading power. Discussions with NASA Administrators and members of Congress suggest U.S. political leaders are at least for now, entirely indifferent to this, perhaps itself an indication of a waning global role.

Manned space programs shape perceptions in positive ways. The most important effect may be on China’s perception of itself.  The successes of the space program are part of a larger story of progress and eventual leadership. The effect on other nations is less clear, unlike the US-Soviet Space race, which was keenly focused on foreign audiences. America’s political leadership is largely indifferent to China’s success, either because of hubris or because they are unimpressed by programs that merely repeat earlier American successes.

We could ask if China is following an outdated recipe for superpower status. In terms of the global effect of the manned program, there might be some truth to this. But for the domestic audience that is the chief concern of China’s leaders, the space program produces invaluable results. Two bombs and a satellite was Mao’s way of demonstrating that China was also a great power. For his successors, the manned program plays the same role. Unlike the Apollo program, it may not demonstrate the superiority of the Chinese system to the world, but it successfully demonstrates it to the Chinese themselves, a conspicuous display of national power and wealth that asserts China’s return to confidence and authority.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior fellow and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies. Image credit: CC by Pierre Pouliquin/Flickr