China's pivotal space mission

Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (left) and Chen Dong wave at a news conference before China launches the Shenzhou 11 manned spacecraft, in Jiuquan, China, on Oct 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Two Chinese astronauts are currently spending 33 days in space - the longest and last manned mission before China starts construction of its own space station from 2018.

The Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, which blasted into space carrying veteran Jing Haipeng and rookie Chen Dong and is targeted to dock with a space lab module today, is seen as a pivotal undertaking.

Monday's manned mission understandably generated less buzz in China, given that it is the sixth one since 2003.

But China's ambitious space programme is no trivial pursuit; it will have a global impact.

One of its top aims is to carry out scientific research, to contribute to human knowledge of the universe, Chinese officials say. Many hope to see a spin-off effect on local industries, boosting the slowing Chinese economy, pushing technological innovation and advancing industrial restructuring.


Then there is the military aspect of China's space programme, evidenced by the creation last year of a Strategic Support Force that oversees space, electronic and network warfare forces.

Every step forward in China's space march will mean a boost for national pride. But it may inadvertently increase public pressure on the top leadership to be more assertive in defence and foreign policy.

For instance, China could become the only country to operate a permanent space station after the United States-dominated International Space Station (ISS) retires in 2024.

Despite being excluded from using the ISS because of concerns about the military nature of its space activities, China has said it will allow other nations to use its space station, expected to be ready by 2022. It remains to be seen if it will keep its promise.

For clues on China's actions and options as a future superpower, one may have to continue to scan the universe.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'China's pivotal space mission'. Print Edition | Subscribe