China's Recent Activities in Space and Cyberspace

Bonji Ohara
Senior Research Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation


In 2019, a total of 102 rockets were launched around the world. China accounted for 34 or one third of the total launches. China put into space the world's largest number of rockets in that year. Reportedly, China is planning to launch more than 40 satellites in 2020. China is now obviously focusing on space development. China's space development strategy is evolving in accordance with the 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People's Republic of China (2016-2020) (the 13th Five-Year Plan). Space development is China's national strategy and has both military and civilian significance. That China's space development has a military aspect can be understood from the fact that in April 2016, the Deputy Director of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission was appointed to the position of Deputy General Director of the Shenzhou program (China's crewed spaceflight initiative).

Meanwhile, China's cyber activities have not been made public, with the exception of some cyber security discussions. In particular, cyber operations for military purposes are treated as highly confidential. It seems certain that China regards activities in space and cyberspace as integrated operations. China aims to acquire the capabilities of conducting network centric warfare. The infrastructures to make up necessary networks to this end are largely artificial satellites. Cyberspace is made available to China thanks to these infrastructures. The presence of a new Strategic Support Force created on December 31, 2015 amidst the PLA's reform efforts since November 2015 symbolically represents this perception. This paper intends to analyze China's space and cyberspace activities, and to discuss their significance in the PLA's combat operations.

1. China Space White Paper

On December 27, 2016, the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China published a space white paper entitled "China's Space Activities in 2016."1 China's space white paper was published in 2000, 2006, 2011 and 2016.2 The 2016 version states in its preamble that "Over the past 60 years of remarkable development since its space industry was established in 1956, China has made great achievements in this sphere, including the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs, missiles, man-made satellites, manned spaceflight and lunar probe. It has opened up a path of self-reliance and independent innovation, and has created the spirit of China's space industry." The white paper mentioned as the primary achievements of China's space industry the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs, carrier missiles, and man-made satellites. Originally, China's space development started to develop strategic nuclear weapons, and in due course included the launching of satellites. These achievements are deemed to be of paramount importance.

China's vision of space development gives the utmost preference to building "China into a space power in all respects," emphasizing "the capabilities to make innovations independently, to make scientific discovery and research at the cutting edge, to promote strong and sustained economic and social development." These are followed by the capabilities "to effectively and reliably guarantee national security, to exercise sound and efficient governance."

The white paper boasts of the nation's achievements over five years since 2011: "the Long March carrier rocket series completed 86 launch missions, sending over 100 spacecraft into target orbit with a success rate of 97.67 percent"; "The Long March 5 (CZ-5), China's newest generation of carrier rockets with a maximum carrying capacity, made its maiden flight" having "a maximum payload capacity of about 25 tons to low earth orbit and about 14 tons to geostationary transfer orbit".

China developed earth observation satellites: the Fengyun (Wind and Cloud), Haiyang (Ocean), Ziyuan (Resources), and Gaofen (High Resolution). "The Gaofen-3 has a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging instrument that is accurate to one meter." The Yaogan is a remote-sensing satellite series, while the Tianhui a space mapping satellite series. As for communications and broadcasting satellites, China has "advanced the construction of fixed, mobile and data relay satellite systems." The launch of "communications satellites such as Yatai and Zhongxing represented the completion of a fixed communications satellite support system whose communications services cover all of China's territory as well as major areas of the world." "The Tiantong-1, China's first mobile communications satellite, has been successfully launched. The first-generation data relay satellite system composed of three Tianlian-1 satellites has been completed, and high-speed communication test of satellite-ground laser link has been crowned with success."

2. China's Space Development Project

(1) The Beidou Positioning Satellite Navigation System

China has been developing the Beidou Positioning Satellite Navigation System under a three-step development strategy. The Beidou-1 system was completed by the end of 2000, and began providing services to Mainland China. By the end of 2012, the Beidou-2 system began providing full-fledged services to the Asia-Pacific region. The Beidou-3 system will begin providing positioning, navigation, and timing support to global users around 2020. China will develop the Beidou-3 system into a comprehensive space and time system by 2035, which will be more ubiquitous, more integrated and smarter.3 The Beidou-2 system that was completed at the end of 2012 has achieved positioning accuracy 10 meters horizontally, 10 meters vertically for the areas around China. In 2018, the Beidou-3 system completed its basic network by deploying 19 satellites for global services. The system will finally come to completion with the deployment of a total of 30 satellites in 2020.4

(2) Maritime Surveillance and Reconnaissance Sensor Network

China launched the first remote sensing satellite Yaogan in 2006, and has since continued to launch the same series of satellites. From May 2016 to January 2018, China formed a remote sensing satellite network of the Yaogan-30 system. In January 2018, the group 4 satellites of the Yaogan-30 system were launched. The fourth group, together with three satellites each of the groups 1 to 3, has gained the capabilities of tracking US Navy and other foreign navy vessels around the world.5 Furthermore, China launched the group 5 of the Yaogan-30 system on July 26, 2019. According to the Chinese government, the Yaogan-30 system will be used for space electromagnetic environment exploration and related technology testing. The system is regarded to be used also for military purposes.6 China seems to possess undisclosed military satellites other than the above.

(3) Communications Satellites

China is accelerating the development of high-speed broadband communications satellites, with an investment of some 10 billion yuan (170 billion yen). China states that high-speed broadband communications will contribute to the "One Belt, One Road" strategy and its overseas development strategy. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation launched on December 27, 2019 the "Dongfanghong-5" ultra-large satellite platform (payload: 1.5 tons) for use of communications and high-orbit remote sensing. The platform that can be used as a space probe is now in operation.

(4) Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Weaponry

China believes that the destruction of US surveillance, communications, and information networks would help rectify its military inferiority to the United States. For this reason, China has been developing anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry. China conducted its first satellite destruction test in 2007, demolishing its own meteorological satellite. In 2014 China tested a co-orbital ASAT weapon and improved its kinetic satellite destruction capability.7 On the other hand, China has already built its communications information network using satellites. Ironically, China is now most aware of the vulnerability of such a network.

China is developing its satellite destruction capability using DEW (Directed Energy Weapon) such as laser and hyper microwaves. But whether it is kinetic or not, the means of destroying satellites are irreversible in nature. Once irreversible means are employed, military clashes will be unavoidable. Therefore, China is improving its capabilities of nullifying satellite networks by reversible means, which include uplink and downlink jamming; dazzling or blinding using lasers and hyper-microwaves; and data interception / surveillance / data contamination by cyberattacks. China is also improving its capabilities of cyberattacks on the ground station, because those attacks are easier than direct attacks on satellites in space.

(5) Manned Space Development

China's manned space development is underway in line with a "Three Step Jump" strategy called the "921 Project" that was parenthetically decided on September 21, 1992. The "921 Project" is based on the "863 Project" that Deng Xiaoping initiated in 1986. This indicates that China's space development has been promoted, as the expansion of the PLA, under Deng's instructions issued in the mid-1980s.

The 1st Step: a basic and experimental stage. The 2nd Step: the docking of a shuttle with the space station and short-term stay in space laboratory. The 3rd Step: the construction of "Tiangong" Space Station for long-term stay, which is scheduled to be completed by 2022. In place of the International Space Station (ISS) that will end its service in 2024, the Chinese space station only will stay aloft in space. China will use the huge payload of its space station for deep space development and military purposes.

(6) Lunar Exploration

Chinese Lunar Exploration project Chang'e started in 2004. It has three stages of exploration: "Unmanned Lunar Exploration," "Manned Moon Landing," and "Building a Base on the Moon." Again, the unmanned lunar exploration is divided into as many stages: "Round," "Land," and "Return."

The 1st stage (2007): The Chang'e-1 spacecraft explored topography, geology, and environment on the Moon. The 2nd stage (2007–2016): The Chang'e-2 and Chang'e-3 spacecraft succeeded in an unmanned Moon landing, and a lunar rover, "Yutu (rabbit)," explored on the Moon, during the period from December 2013 to August 2016. The 3rd stage (2016–2020): The Chang'e-4 spacecraft was launched on December 8, 2018, and landed on the far side of the Moon on January 3, 2019.8 A lunar rover began exploring the distribution of natural resources such as water, ice and helium 3 that is used for nuclear-fusion power generation. China originally planned to launch the Chang'e-5 spacecraft in 2019, which was expected to collect soil and rock samples on the Moon surface and return home to the Earth. Yet, as of January 15, 2020, no information is available on the launch of the Chang'e-5 spacecraft.

3. Major Actors in Chinese Space Activities

(1) The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC)

One of the major actors in China's space development is the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The forerunner of the corporation was China's first missile research institute, the No. 5 Research Academy under the Ministry of National Defense. It was established on October 8, 1956, and China's space industry was set in motion. On July 1, 1999, the State Council established the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and appointed its president. In April 2013, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council established the board of directors in the corporation and appointed a chairman, indicating that the corporation is to be controlled by the CCP. This implies that the civil-military separation in space development is nominal. The corporation was privatized as China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation on December 8, 2017. It has a capital of 20 billion yuan (approximately 315 billion yen). The CCP appoints the president and chairman of the corporation.9

The broad array of civil-use products produced by the CASC includes Long March launch vehicles, manned spaceships, lunar rovers, Beidou positioning navigation satellites, scientific exploration satellites, engineering test satellites, meteorological satellites, ground observation satellites, and communications satellites. The corporation also produces military products such as strategic nuclear weapons like the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), conventional warhead surface-to-surface missiles, missile air defense systems, and unmanned vehicles. The CASC is the only organization in China responsible for research and development and the production of ICBMs and produces a wide variety of missiles.

According to data as of January 15, 2020, the CASC launched a total of 326 Long March series rockets. In 2019 it launched the same series launch vehicles 27 times, putting 43 satellites into space. The CASC manufactured launch vehicles and almost all satellites for use of the Beidou system --- the Chinese version of GPS. Moreover, the CASC is in charge of research and development of manned spaceships, carrier spacecraft, launch vehicles, space laboratories and space stations, and has so far successfully launched eleven Shenzhou spacecraft, one Tianzhou carrier spacecraft, and a space laboratory. In addition, the CASC is conducting research and development and launching of Chang'e series of moon explorers and their carrier rockets.10

(2) The PLA Strategic Support Force

The PLA Strategic Support Force was established on December 31, 2015, and is estimated to have 175,000 personnel. It has taken over the duties of the 2nd Department (HUMINT), the 3rd Department (SIGINT), and the 4th Department (RADAR / ECM) of the former PLA General Staff Department and part of the duties of the former PLA General Armaments Department. The Force is mandated to report to the CCP Central Military Committee about the PLA's capabilities in space and cyberspace.

The primary mission of the Strategic Support Force is to secure China's dominance in space, deep space, networks, and cyberspace, and to provide advantageous support to PLA operations. Its specific duties include intelligence, SIGINT, electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, special operations in psychological warfare, maintenance supply, target search, detection, and tracking, target information transmission, navigation support activities, management of the Beidou system and space information collection measures, cyberattack and defense, and network defense.11

4. China's Activities in Cyberspace

(1) General Description

Unlike China's space activities, China's cyber activities are, in many cases, not known to the world. Information warfare is now incorporated into all major PLA military exercises. As is the case with military forces in other countries, the PLA finds difficulties in positioning the role of cyber operations in its overall strategic framework. As a consequence, the PLA still lacks many cyber operational functions and seems to be unable to overcome its weakness compared to the United States. It is not certain at this moment whether China has specific goals for its cyber operations.

It is predictable, however, that while China will use its enhanced cyber operations capabilities to intimidate weaker opponents, it will assert that such activities by China are justifiable. Also, if military tensions rise with, among other countries, the United States, China will use its cyber operations capabilities not only for the pursuit of tactical effects in the battlefield, but also for nullifying the adversary's war potential in peacetime. A significant step that China should take preceding the rise of military tensions would be to forge an international environment conducive to undermining the strategic advantage of the United States and its allies. The Chinese government believes that international negotiations on cyberspace governance and cyber security will play an important role in transforming the PLA's cyberspace into an advantageous war fighting domain.12

(2) China's Cyber Operations Capabilities

The "Made in China 2025" program, which was started by President Xi Jinping's initiative in 2015, stipulates that China will provide support to domestic advanced high-tech manufacturers in order to consolidate its cyber security through the development of advanced integrated circuit chips, even amidst fierce trade disputes with the United States over technology competition. The State Administration of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) was established to implement innovation-led technology development strategies. The SASTIND is operating the National Institute of Defense Technology Innovation.13

Developed commercial technology is also applied to military purposes. The development of China's military cyber capabilities depends on the utilization of the private sector's potential. The State Council's medium- to long-term program for science and technology development, implemented from 2006 to 2020, emphasizes the importance of civil-military fusion in science and technology.

The 11th Five-Year Plan for National Economy and Social Development (the 11th Five-Year Plan), adopted at the 4th Session of the 10th National People's Congress in March 2006, included for the first time national defense and military construction measures in the overall plan for national economy and social development.14 The 12th Five-Year Plan, released at the 4th session of the 11th National People's Congress in March 2011, included an entry titled as "Part XV: Civil-military fusion, strengthen the construction of national defense and army modernization." For the first time, "civil-military fusion" was specified.15 The PLA, under the policy of civil-military fusion, is promoting collaboration in the cyber sphere with colleges and universities and the private telecommunications sector. The PLA maintains important connections with corporations like ZTE and Huawei, and joint research relationships with some 46 colleges and universities.

5. Major Actors in Chinese Cyber Operations

(1) The PLA Unit 61398

Although actors in Chinese cyber operations and their activities are concealed as state secrets, some of them have been exposed. According to a report published by an American security firm Mandient (now FireEye) in 2013, "APT1 Exposing One of China's Cyber Espionage Units," the PLA Unit 61398 is identified as engaging in cyber espionage. The PLA Unit 61398 is an organization belonging to the Second Bureau of the Third Department of the former PLA General Staff Department (now the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission) and is located in Shanghai. The Unit seems to have hundreds of personnel and thousands of collaborators.16

The Third Department of the former PLA General Staff Department was responsible for SIGINT. It is said to have been engaged also in cyber operations. The department, dubbed the Technical Reconnaissance Department, was originally in charge of gathering information on foreign technology trends. Given their specific missions, it is quite natural to assume that both the Third Department and the PLA UNIT 61398 were stealing advanced technology abroad through cyber espionage. The Third Department was seemingly endowed with a cyber security-related mission, while the Fourth Department is said to have engaged in cyberattacks.

APT refers to a group that conducts APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks under the direction and support of national organizations. According to FireEye, the wide-ranging targets of the APT1, or the PLA Unit 61398, include information technology, aerospace, government, satellites / communications, scientific research / scientific advisors, energy, transportation, construction / manufacturing, engineering services, high technology / electronics, international organizations, practice of law, media, advertisement / entertainment, navigation, chemistry, finance, food / agriculture, medicine, metals / mining, and educational organizations in English-speaking countries.

Reportedly the equipment used by the PLA Unit 61398 is provided by China Telecom Corporation Limited. This is also an example of civil-military fusion. The PLA Unit 61398, however, is just one of the organizations responsible for cyber espionage. The whole picture of the PLA's cyber operations is not available.

(2) The PLA Strategic Support Force

The PLA Strategic Support Force serves also as a cyber operations unit. Since the unit is considered to have taken over the duties of the Third Department of the former PLA General Staff Department, some experts offer the analysis that that the PLA Unit 61398 has also come under the Strategic Support Force. However, it is uncertain how many of the 175,000 personnel of the Strategic Support Force are involved in cyber operations.

The Strategic Support Force aims to gain and maintain dominance in space and cyberspace at the time of or prior to the onset of combat actions. The unit is regarded to possess the capabilities of defensive / aggressive cyber operations, besides cyber espionage.

(3) Cyber Militias

The PLA's capabilities of cyber operations have been improved due mostly to the reinforcement of cyber militias. It is said that the number of recruited personnel has exceeded 10 million, and that cyber militias constituted an important force of the Third Department of the former PLA General Staff Department.17 China's cyber militias are a successor to the tradition of People's war and represent civil-military fusion.

Conclusion: PLA Combat Operations in Space and Cyberspace

Since 1993, the PLA has pursued active defense, aiming to win local warfare under the conditions of high-technology and informatization. Stimulated by the US Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), the PLA has been advancing the development of network-centric operation capabilities similar to those of the US military. However, the PLA's move toward network-based combat operations would amount to abandoning its traditional advantage of numerical superiority.

The PLA adopts the concept of information control, analogous to sea and air control, to fight information warfare. The PLA has at least twelve informatized training facilities, where operation units are said to undergo composite military training under the conditions of restricted communications due to obstruction or interference. In July 2008, the former PLA General Staff Department ratified and promulgated the "the New Military Training Syllabus," which mandates that military training be conducted under informatized conditions.18 Subsequent exercises, such as "Kuayue-2009 maneuver," "Shiming Xingdong-2010 maneuver," and "Lianhe-2011 maneuver," incorporated elements of defensive / aggressive cyber operations and information manipulation.19

The PLA's efforts to improve its cyber operations capabilities have progressed in response to US policy and military operations. For example, on May 4, 2018, the US Cyber Command became the tenth unified combatant command. Until then it had been subordinate to the Strategic Command. China may have paid close attention to the promotion of the Cyber Command. In that sense, China's military cyber operations have evolved following the need for national defense. On the other hand, since the PLA regards the capabilities of preemptive attack as a vital factor, its cyber operations are not necessarily defensive in character. The PLA's views on cyber deterrence are not known.

The PLA is attempting to integrate all operational domains. Army and Navy joint operations are an example. China's military strategy is expected to claim the consolidation of information warfare and electronic warfare into a single concept, "integrated network electronic warfare." Non-electronic elements of information warfare may include psychological manipulation and deception. China has started to integrate its activities in space and cyberspace.

Being a latecomer in both space and cyberspace activities, China, afraid of the capabilities of the United States, is expediting capacity building in these domains. China's strength lies in its unqualified use of domestic resources. We should note that the activities of Chinese corporations contribute to the PLA's capacity building, and analyze Chinese moves in these domains.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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