02 July 2014

What Explains China’s Comprehensive but Uneven Aerospace Development?

Andrew S. Erickson, “What Explains China’s Comprehensive but Uneven Aerospace Development?” in Christophe Rothmund, ed., Proceedings of the Forty-Third History Symposium of the International Academy of Astronautics, American Astronautical Society (AAS) History Series, Vol. 40 (San Diego, CA: Univelt, 2013), 55-63.

With respect to aerospace development capabilities, China is changing from a developing country whose leaders prioritized some specific sub-sectors at the expense of others to a great power capable of developing simultaneously all types of high-level aerospace products. World-class levels have already been reached with missiles/rockets and satellites; aircraft, particularly civilian, remain the most critical lagging area, but show potential for rapid improvement. This paper explores China’s Cold War aerospace trajectory and prospects for future development.

Conceptual Context

In order to place China’s aerospace development—its achievements in the areas of aviation and space flight—in their larger context, it is necessary to develop a theory, or at least an analytical framework, for understanding aerospace development and its larger geopolitical implications. The realist school of thought in political science, which is based on the idea that nations naturally compete for security and scarce resources in an international system that lacks centralized governance, offers a useful theoretical basis for explaining state behavior with respect to aerospace development.

States engage in what I term “geotechnological” competition, including such behaviors as balancing. This also involves cooperation, such as the development of formal and informal mechanisms and partnerships with respect to technology and finished product development and transfer to meet needs that states are unable to fulfill on their own. States do so to prevent competitors from denying them access to critical items, and occasionally even to distract competitors with geostrategic challenges.

While economic and cooperative factors are clearly a major force in the international system, and should not be ignored, observation of nations’ behavior with regard to critical aerospace technologies nevertheless reveals precisely this sort of prioritization, contention, and maneuvering, even among nations who otherwise enjoy exceptional relations. Examples include disputes over technology transfer between the United States and European Union (EU) member nations and the United States and Japan.

Since China’s reform and opening up to the world in 1978, the efforts of China’s leaders in the aerospace realm have been informed by at least four widely-held perceptions: 1) realist assumptions about the nature of the international system, 2) of techno-nationalism (技术民族主义), the idea that technological strength is an effective determinant of national power in a harshly competitive world, and 3) of the need to learn from history, a primary lesson of which is that the Soviet Union overextended itself by overemphasizing military development at the expense of economic development. In this, they unusually effective in both their assessment of aerospace opportunities and challenges and their pursuit of them but hardly unique in their aspirations in this regard.