On April 22, the People’s Republic of China’s National Space Administration announced its plan to launch a robotic Mars mission in 2020, to reach Mars by 2021. The project will involve an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. If successful, it will be China’s first visit to Mars and could mark the first Asian landing on the Red Planet, potentially making the country the third power (behind the Soviet Union and the United States) to touch down and operate on the Martian surface.

This announcement follows on the heels of a number of successive Chinese space achievements and aligns with China’s other ambitious short-term space goals. In 2007 and 2010, China launched, respectively, the lunar orbiters Chang’e 1 and 2. Chang’e 3, which launched, landed, and deployed a rover on the Moon’s surface in late 2013, was the first lunar soft-landing in 37 years as well as the first Asian soft-landing on the Moon.

Looking ahead at the next five years, China intends to conduct a lunar sample-return program with the lander Chang’e 5, expected to launch in 2017, and a potential Chang’e 6 mission in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, in 2018, Chang’e 4 will land on the lunar far-side, the first surface exploration effort of its kind.

A common question for those studying, analyzing, and involved in space programs is that of the rationale. Why do we go to space? What value do we derive from our activity, be it human or robotic, beyond the bounds of Earth? These questions go beyond the philosophical – their answers directly affect policy, planning, financing, and technological development.

Much has been made of the national security aspect of China’s space program, and for good reason: the dual-use nature of space assets and the strategic advantages of space supremacy are compelling to an increasingly assertive military power such as China. Yet unlike activity in Earth orbit, lunar and interplanetary exploration is of marginal direct national security value. Still, the Chinese government has evidently committed its political weight and financial resources to an ambitious, multi-element campaign of solar system exploration.

What motivates China’s robotic exploration aspirations? Moreover, what are the implications of those motivations for American policymakers? And more broadly, what does a ‘case-study’ of China’s efforts indicate about the present-day rationales supporting a robotic exploration program?

Broad Rationales for Robotic Exploration

Numerous rationales for space exploration have been issued and debated over the years. Of the more compelling arguments regarding what motivates policymakers to pursue a space program, those that highlight the prestige, national security, and geopolitical benefits are most supported by historical evidence.

Early rocketry was driven by the pursuit for ICBM capabilities. The international politics and competition of the Cold War were manifest in the ‘Space Race,’ serving as leading rationales and motivations for the Apollo landings. The joint American and Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission underscored a display of international cooperation and détente. National security rationales influenced the formulation of the Space Shuttle, a program intended in part to carry DoD satellites to orbit. The Soviet Buran project was a response to the Shuttle, spurred by Soviet security concerns over American spaceplane capabilities. Space Station Freedom was in large part a prestige project, and the eventual cooption of Russia into the International Space Station was motivated by the national security desire to keep Russia’s engineers, technologies, and capabilities in “friendly” post-Soviet Russian hands.

These examples, of course, focus squarely on human spaceflight. What of robotic exploration? Non-human exploration through robotics is often seen as an ‘extension of human capabilities,’ capable of engaging in research endeavors and pursuing a deeper understanding of the universe beyond the reach of a human presence. Accordingly, a principal motivation for robotic exploration is the pursuit of science and knowledge.

The endeavor of robotic exploration also reflects geopolitical interests and involves the pursuit of prestige, if with a lower profile than human missions. Discoveries and scientific breakthroughs are demonstrative of a country’s “brain power,” an element of its soft-power standing. Following the successful New Horizons mission to Pluto, for example, public commentators and NASA made note that the United States became “the first country to visit every planet in the solar system.” Arguably, the Soviet Unions’ and the United States’ robotic exploration post-‘Space Race’ was a “brain race,” a continuation of the technological competition and duel for soft-power influence that marked relations between the two countries throughout the Cold War. Notably, following the failure of their manned heavy-lift N1 rocket program, the Soviet response to the first Apollo missions was Luna 16, a robotic spacecraft that conducted a lunar sample-return.

Drawing historical evidence from the Cold War-era to argue that geopolitics and prestige were primary motivators of robotic exploration admittedly stands on shaky ground. Both the United States and the Soviet Union pursued human spaceflight in tandem with their robotic programs. Those campaigns of human spaceflight overshadowed robotic exploration as demonstrators of prestigious might and international superiority. Yet in the present day, the emerging space powers in Asia which lack a human spaceflight program – India, Japan, and South Korea – have evidently pursued and found robotic exploration as an equal substitute for displays of geopolitical strength and technological superiority. After all, as an “extension of human capabilities” robotic exploration involves the elements of prestige and power that come associated.

As is increasingly apparent and as noted by multiple commentators and sources, a ‘space race’ – involving significant competition through solar system exploration – is blossoming between these Asian space powers and China.

Today’s ‘Robotic Space Race’

India became the first Asian power to successfully reach Mars orbit with its Mangalyaan probe in 2014. Looking to the future, India and France have signed a cooperative agreement for a joint mission involving a Mars orbiter in 2020, and have signaled that a Mars lander wouldn’t be far off. Meanwhile, India deployed the Chandrayaan 1 lunar orbiter and impactor in 2008 and has plans to launch Chandrayaan 2, featuring a lunar orbiter, lander, and rover, in late 2017.

Japan’s Hagoromo lunar orbiter, deployed in 1990, reached orbit but ceased transmitting enroute. The country’s SELENE orbiter and impactor, launched in 2007, was a success and Japan now has plans to land a rover on the Moon’s surface in 2018. Though the Nozomi spacecraft sent to Mars, launched in 1998, was a failure, Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency has been considering plans for a robotic sample-return mission to one of Mars’ moons in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, Japan has embarked on a successful campaign of asteroid exploration, with the Hayabusa spacecraft returning a sample of asteroid material in 2010 and the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, launched in 2014, scheduled to return more asteroid material in 2020.

South Korea has its own Moon campaign, with hopes to reach the Moon with an orbiter by 2018. A subsequent Moon lander is planned for 2020 or sometime shortly thereafter. The lander phase of the program will correspond with the development of a new, heavier-lift South Korean launch vehicle.

Lending credence to the idea that these campaigns of robotic exploration constitute a ‘space race’ is that these counties’ efforts, running simultaneous with each other, occur at a time of significant tension, conflict, and competition between them and China. Just as the Earthly politics of the Cold War influenced American and Soviet space policy and prompted rationales for programs, politics influence the current intent and aspirations of Asia’s space powers. China’s space efforts fit neatly and understandably within the emerging ‘robotic space race.’

The motivations of the geopolitical environment are of great significance for China’s space program, and to understand the domestic and international rationales behind China’s robotic exploration a brief discussion of China’s context is necessary.

China’s Context

The People’s Republic of China is a rising global power seeking to establish political, military, and economic hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese leadership is motivated by two principal concerns. First, the government is intent on asserting Chinese power, both hard and soft, to achieve those international aims. Second, as a single-party undemocratic state built upon the Chinese Communist Party’s legacy, the leadership seeks to tangibly demonstrate progress that resonates with the Party’s narrative of continual economic prosperity, scientific achievement, and national pride and unity so as to legitimize continued one-party rule.

Crucial among the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative is the legacy of “national humiliation” and the subsequent aspiration to achieve ‘great power’ status. Drawing from the past half-century’s precedent of superpower capabilities, China’s leadership has concluded that, for China to be seen as a great power in the eyes of its own population, its neighbors, and the broader international community, the country must possess the features characteristic of one – such as an advanced technology sector, a force-projecting blue water navy, and a space program.

These motivations feed directly into the domestic and international rationales underlying China’s space efforts, including its robotic exploration of the solar system.

Domestic Rationales

China’s space efforts and high-profile space activities, such as the Chang’e 3 lander and the upcoming plans for lunar sample return and a Mars rover, seek to tangibly and propagandistically validate the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy and entrench its hold on power. They are conducted to demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party is the best provider of material benefits to the Chinese people and the best organization to propel China to its rightful place in world affairs.

A nation’s rhetoric is indicative of its rationales and motivations. Space missions are routinely described in the Chinese media and in government statements as advancing and enhancing China’s power and prestige, rousing national ethos, and inspiring people of all of China’s ethnic groups for “the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics.”

In its “Space Activities in 2011” white paper, the Chinese government laid out its rationale for actively pursuing a space program. The paper stated that “Space activities play an increasingly important role in China’s economic and social development. [Now is] a crucial period for China in building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform and opening-up, and accelerating the transformation of the country’s pattern of economic development. China [pursues space] to meet the demands of economic development, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to improve the scientific and cultural knowledge of the Chinese people, protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its national comprehensive strength.”

In 2007, following the success of the Chang’e 1 orbiter, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued statements on behalf of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission – three leading organs of the Chinese government. He said that Chang’e 1 “demonstrates that our comprehensive national strength, our creative capabilities and the level of our science and technology continues to increase, with extremely important practical implications… for strengthening the force of our ethnic solidarity.”

During the landing of Chang’e 3, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center to hear the mission declared a success. In a congratulatory message, the Communist Party’s Central Committee, State Council, and the Central Military Commission called the mission a “milestone in the development of China’s space programs and a new glory in Chinese explorations.”

A commentary in the state-run Xinhau news agency opinioned that the success of Chang’e 3 was a realization of China’s space dream, “a source of national pride and inspiration for further development, [that makes] China stronger and will surely help realize the broader Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”

In another Xinhau article, describing China’s Mars plans, a leading motivation for the upcoming mission is that “exploring the Red Planet and deep space will cement China’s scientific and technological expertise. The knock-on effect is that innovations and independent intellectual property rights will surge, and, as a result, China’s core competence will increase, pushing development in other industries.”

This economic and scientific rationale is a key motivator for China’s robotic exploration program. As President Xi Jinping stated at a speech (note: link is in Chinese) to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2014, China is “closer than at any other time in its history of reaching its mighty goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese people” and must “continue by resolutely implementing the strategy of using science and education to rejuvenate the country and innovation to drive development and unswervingly continue on the road of making China into a strong science and technology power.”

To that, the robotic lunar exploration program (note: link is in Chinese) is a “major strategic decision by the Party Central Committee, State Council, and CMC taking a broad look at our country’s overall modernization and construction by grasping the world’s large science and technology events and promoting our country’s space enterprise development, promoting our country’s scientific and technological advancement and innovation, and improving our country’s comprehensive national power.”

Rhetoric aside, China’s lunar efforts are premised upon tangible economic gain. China’s scientific exploration of the Moon has centered around the composition of the lunar surface. The country’s researchers are particularly interested in Helium-3, with the hope that Chinese excavation of the material could eventually power a nuclear fusion reactor.

In the words of the head of China’s first phase of lunar exploration, “Helium-3 is considered as a long-term, stable, safe, clean and cheap material for human beings to get nuclear energy through controllable nuclear fusion experiments. If we human beings can finally use such energy material to generate electricity, then China might need 10 tons of helium-3 every year.” More to the point, he continued with “the harvesting of Helium-3 on the Moon could start by 2025. Our lunar mining could be but a jumping off point for Helium 3 extraction from the atmospheres of our Solar System gas giants, Saturn and Jupiter.”

Clearly, a myriad of development, technological innovation, economic prosperity, and national pride rationales influence the Chinese government’s plans and aspirations for robotic exploration. As can be seen in the Chinese rhetoric issued on its robotic exploration, China’s intent on becoming a “rejuvenated” and “great” power underlie these motivations. To that, they feed into the international rationales for Chinese exploration, as too does the geopolitical environment in which China currently exists.

International Rationales

China’s ambition for space achievement is driven by a belief that the technological, economic, and prestige benefits that result increase China’s national power, thereby enhancing China’s overall influence and giving China more freedom of action.

This is critical for China’s standing and position in the international community. China is pursuing hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, prompting major security concerns among its neighbors, but does so at its own risk – China’s neighbors are among its top trade partners, and are thereby responsible for China’s continued economic growth. This requires a delicate strategic balancing act in which China must minimize confrontation with potential foes and regional competitors, lest conflict undermine its critically important development goals and thereby sour the Communist Party’s legitimizing narrative, while at the same time strengthening economic ties with them. In turn, China’s neighbors are pursuing hedging strategies in which they strengthen security ties with China’s main military competitor – the United States – while continuing to seek beneficial economic arraignments with China.

In light of this strategic posturing, China’s hope is to arrive at a position of such eminence and clout through its economic dominance and soft-power influence that its neighbors simply defer to its wishes instead of confronting its rise. The successful execution of this strategy would avoid a regional – or global – conflict that would lay ruin to the interconnected and co-reliant economics of the Asia-Pacific.

China’s pursuit of robotic exploration and the prestige of achievement is a method by which it seeks to arrive at that eminence.

Comments from leaders in China’s space sector and government reflect that intent. Ye Peijian of the Chinese Academy of Sciences wrote that, with China’s Mars mission, “we are not the first Asian nation to send a probe to Mars, [but] we want to start at a higher level.” Primer Wen Jaibao noted that Chang’e 1 was “raising our international standing.”

China’s neighbors, of course, understand the Chinese strategy and have thus pursued their own robotic exploration programs as a method to undermine China’s rising influence. Chinese achievement in space is less prestigious, and carries less weight in regional geopolitics, when its neighbors have succeeded with equivalent missions in a similar timeframe. Hence, the Asian ‘space race.’

Of importance is that China’s rhetorical explanation for space exploration emphasizes its peaceful nature, an attempt to posture and portray the country as being on a ‘peaceful’ rise – one which its neighbors should not fear. China’s 2011 space white paper notes that “China will work together with the international community to maintain a peaceful and clean outer space and endeavor to make new contributions to the lofty cause of promoting world peace and development.” Following Chang’e 3, President Xi Jinping noted that the mission was an “outstanding contribution of China in mankind’s peaceful use of space.”

Finally, there is an element of international cooperation within China’s robotic program that serves China’s purposes. While some commentators have rightly pointed out opportunities for deeper cooperation between China’s space agency and others, it is important to note that space cooperation does not drive relations on Earth but rather reflects them. The Apollo-Soyuz program, for example, was a result of increasing détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, not the catalyst. Nonetheless, space cooperation can strengthen China’s international position, increasing its influence among less developed countries and building China’s reputation as that of a reliable and attractive space partner.

To that end, space cooperation in the robotic sphere supports China’s goal of establishing a multi-polar world, undermining the global unipolar hegemony currently enjoyed by the United States. In no position yet to compete with the United States for global hegemony, China hopes to arrive at a position of rough equality, or at least similar influence, in the international balance of power so as to shape and define it to fit its national interest.

As an example of this: China’s longest cooperative space relationship is with Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Notably, Russia in the present day is also seeking to disrupt the United States’ dominance of the global order through its actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. China has a long-term cooperation plan with Russia resulting in technology transfer, agreements, and cooperation on deep space exploration. China’s first attempt at a robotic Mars mission, the Yinghuo 1 orbiter, was launched attached to Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe, which ended in failure. Even still, Russia is receptive to cooperating with China on the future exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency and China have begun to seek out and identify areas in which the two can cooperate on future robotic space science missions and exploration.

These international rationales for robotic exploration, along with the domestic, drive Chinese space policy. China’s space policy, meanwhile, is an element of its broader policies and strategy for regional hegemony, ‘great power’ status, and domestic development. For the United States – whose hegemony in the Asia-Pacific is at risk by China’s rise – the implications of China’s robotic exploration should be carefully considered. As with trade and economic policy and national security strategy, this consideration is necessary to develop policies which sustain and preserve the United States geopolitical leadership.

Implications for American Policymakers

In China’s robotic exploration, three principal implications arise for American policymakers.

First, China’s campaign of solar system exploration is a reflection of its quest for domestic economic and technological development – facets of China’s pursuit of ‘great power’ status – and should therefore be regarded as a metric to gauge China’s progress toward that status. China’s leadership has calculated that robotic exploration is one foundation by which to build the nation and has accordingly poured financial resources into that exploration. So long as China’s present-day strategy remains the country’s guiding plan, this robotic exploration will continue.

As such, changes in China’s intention for robotic exploration will indicate a change in Chinese grand strategy, signal a change in the rhetorical narrative underpinning the Communist Party’s legitimacy, or reflect a major downturn in the economic strength and technological capabilities supporting the Chinese effort. The particular details and ramifications of any of these changes have yet to reveal themselves, but would undoubtedly necessitate a major strategic reaction or shift by the United States.

Second, China’s campaign of solar system exploration is a reflection of its quest for international standing and regional influence. So long as that quest continues, so too should China’s robotic efforts. As such, so too will the competing space efforts of China’s weary neighbors. If the United States wishes to undermine China’s rise to regional hegemony, the opportunity to do so through heightened cooperation with or support for the space programs of U.S. Asian allies – Japan, India, and South Korea – presents itself as a strategically available and beneficial option.

Third, China’s campaign of solar system exploration involves elements of international cooperation which may undermine the United States’ leadership in space and, as a result, leadership on Earth. Countries not sharing the United States’ security concerns may turn to China as a partner with which to pursue space exploration. China may seek out avenues for cooperation with countries it is building relationships with – at the detriment to the United States’ influence with those countries. More importantly, the United States’ established and most prominent ‘ally’ – the European Union – has sought deeper ties with China in space. Though international cooperation is space does not directly influence relations on Earth, this is a reflection of a gradually shifting balance of power where a multi-power world, in which multiple ‘great powers’ with space exploration capabilities seek cooperation with each other, is emerging from the current one dominated by United States technological and geopolitical hegemony.

This point invariably prompts discussions of Sino-American cooperation in space exploration. That is too broad a discussion, with too many positives and negatives in favor of and opposed to the idea, for the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, the rationales behind China’s exploration program will motivate any change in current law preventing cooperation in space between the United States in China or lend credence to the preservation of the legal status-quo.

It is the opinion of the author, however, that Sino-American cooperation in robotic exploration may be one method by which the United States could to co-opt China’s rise and quest for influence. China will invariably pursue solar system exploration for its national interest; without the opportunity for cooperation with China in space exploration, the United States stands by idly as the Chinese pursue other partners and objectives at the detriment to American global influence. If the Chinese are seeking to rise in the international system so as to change it and are doing so in part through solar system exploration, it may be wise strategy for the United States to cooperate with – and co-opt – the Chinese in order to preserve the American national interest and international status quo to the greatest extent possible.

China as a ‘Case Study’

Though the domestic and international context supporting them are unique to the country, China’s rationales for robotic exploration are indicative of the present-day motivations for programs of solar system exploration.

Robotic exploration goes beyond the pursuit of science and knowledge, though those are key goals for and benefits derived from such exploration. It directly connects to a country’s goals of economic and technological development, national pride, and international influence and clout. To that end, robotic exploration supports a country’s broad ‘grand strategy’ – its geopolitical posturing and domestic planning.

For countries which lack programs of human exploration, robotic missions serve as equivalent substitutes through which they derive the prestige and political benefits that manned spaceflight provides. India, Japan, and South Korea have, in addition to other reasons, pursued relatively ambitious programs of robotic exploration in order to compete with China, just as the Soviet Union and the United States pursued human spaceflight and a manned Moon program to compete with each other.

To that end: some have argued that the United States and China are not nor will be in a ‘space race.’ It is true that the United States and China will likely not be locked in competition for equal achievement and prominence in human spaceflight; the United States remains the predominant spacefaring country in the world. Yet the thesis of those arguments miss the mark: more than just competition in space, a ‘space race’ is an element of broader geopolitical competition, such as what the United States and China – and India, Japan, South Korea, and China – now find themselves in. So long as geopolitical tensions and shifts to the regional and global balance of power continue, so too will these countries find themselves ‘racing’ in space to support and satisfy their ‘race’ on Earth. Whereas the rationale for human spaceflight in the 1960s and early 1970s was to win a ‘space race,’ so too is the rationale for robotic spaceflight in the 2010s and beyond.