China's final frontier

The Chinese are latecomers to space, and desperate to catch up. Two years after shooting down a sate

Dongfan Chung had lived in Orange County, California, for 45 years. The 72-year-old, known as Greg to his friends, led a quiet life with his artist wife and son. Quiet, that is, until dawn on 11 February 2008, when the FBI came to his home to arrest him on eight counts of espionage.

Chung, who had worked for Rockwell International and then Boeing - both companies involved in operating the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station for Nasa - is accused of sending confidential information on the US space programme to China over a 30-year period. His trial begins on 6 May. If convicted, he could face spending the rest of his life in jail.

What could have made him do it? The indictment issued by the District Court of California includes extracts from a letter Chung wrote in 1979 to a professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China: "I don't know what I can do for the country. Having been a Chinese compatriot for over 30 years and being proud of the achievements by the people's efforts for the motherland, I am regretful for not contributing anything . . . I would like to make an effort to contribute to the Four Modernisations of China."

A list found in Chung's possession showed the extent of the knowledge to which he had access; it included manuals on aircraft and space shuttle design as well as military specifications. It seems he would simply take documents out of the office, hide them at his home, and then travel to China to present the information, sometimes using his wife as a foil; he pretended on one occasion that they were going there at the invitation of a Chinese art institute. His hosts were grateful. Gu Weihao, an official of the ministry of aviation in Beijing, signed off a letter to Chung saying: "It is your honour and China's fortune that you are able to realise your wish of dedicating yourself to the service of your country." Chung was playing his patriotic part in the construction of the new China, ensuring the motherland gained that defining accessory of a great power: a space programme.

The country's space story begins, as the China National Space Administration white paper puts it, "50 splendid years" ago under Chairman Mao with the development of a ballistic missile programme. Over the next generation, space and nuclear research continued and expanded. By 2003, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to launch a manned mission into space; the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut took place last September. Footage of the event shows Zhai Zhigang waving a Chinese flag as he drifts against the black sky, attached by an umbilical cord to the Shenzhou VII spacecraft. The red flag catches the sunlight reflecting off the earth. Zhai's voice crackles: "My country, please have faith in me. I and my team will finish this mission."

Zhai became a national hero. He had shown the world how quickly China was progressing. In a speech shortly afterwards, the then Nasa administrator, Michael Griffin, acknowledged the achievement. "I personally believe China will be back on the moon before we are," he said. "I think that when that happens Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it."

Forty years on from Neil Armstrong's famed first steps, moon landings still capture the imagination. They give countries geopolitical status, prized membership of an elite club. But China's lunar aspirations tell only half the story. All space research develops technology that can have civil or military uses - satellites, for example, can monitor weather patterns or troop movements. The lack of distinction between the two in China causes the US "quite a bit of concern", according to Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Programme at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. There is, he says, "no organisational separation between the civilian and military" parts of the Chinese space programme. Other space-faring nations, such as the US or India, make the division institutionally clear, but in China the whole show is run by the People's Liberation Army. As Yuan says: "The Chinese military understands that modern warfare depends on how you use space."

No wonder the case of Greg Chung prompted a strong reaction. Ken Wainstein, then assistant attorney general for US national security, warned of "the threat posed by the relentless efforts of foreign intelligence services to penetrate our security systems and steal our most sensitive military technology and information". It was, he said, "a threat to our national security and to our economic position in the world". Says Alan Paller, a cyber security expert who advises the US government: "We're talking about the equivalent of the following thing happening at every major defence organisation: a guy is walking into the building, copying files and taking them away. They're not taking 25 files, or 50 files, they're taking millions of files."

In a report to Congress last November, the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission claimed that there are about 250 organised hacker groups tolerated and possibly encouraged by the Chinese government. In one year, China was said to have downloaded between 10 and 20 terabytes of data from US government and contractor websites (roughly the equivalent of all the text in the British Library). So what is Beijing doing with it all? Catching up, for one thing. As Yuan says, the Chinese were “latecomers” to space and they want to avoid reinventing the wheel. But the apparent scale of the espionage campaign is making the Americans anxious. Chris Shank, until recently director of strategic communications at Nasa, drops his voice when asked about its effect: “It’s deeply disconcerting . . . They know that we know what is going on and they know it’s hurt relations.”

Beijing dismisses the commission's report as "unworthy of rebuttal". At the time of its release, the foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, was defiant. "The commission always sees China through distorted colour spectacles, and intentionally creates obstacles for China-US co-operation through smearing China deliberately and misleading the general public," he said. The official line is that China "is unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development, and always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind".

Alan Paller, for one, doesn't buy it. He has no qualms about saying that China and the US are in an "arms race", pure and simple. Observers in Washington point to the first Gulf War as the moment when the Chinese realised that developing sophisticated technology in space was synonymous with being a major military power. They watched how the Americans used satellite systems for all aspects of warfare - navigation, communications, imagery and early missile attack warnings - and realised that if they were to have any hope of matching US military weight they would need to shape up in space. The Chinese were also being realistic. They knew that closing the gap with the US in conventional military force was impossible. But US dependence on space systems was what Yuan calls their "soft rib". If the Chinese could develop the capability to threaten the US 500 miles above the earth, it wouldn't matter how many tanks they had.

That capability was made dramatically apparent when, in January 2007, a "kinetic kill vehicle" was propelled into space from a base in the remote Sichuan Province. Travelling at 18,000 miles an hour, it successfully hit its target, a Chinese weather satellite. It took almost two weeks for the Chinese to confirm they had done it, despite the international outcry over the "weaponising" of space. "There's no need to feel threatened about this," said their foreign ministry spokesman at the time. To anyone outside the space business, China blowing up one of its own weather satellites doesn't seem like such a big deal. But a China expert and analyst for US defence organisations, Dean Cheng, says that "it made pretty much everyone think differently".

It was, if you like, another Sputnik moment. When the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, they demonstrated an ability that worried the US. Sputnik showed that the Soviets could use ballistic missiles to carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the US. The Chinese anti-satellite test was, similarly, a muscle-flex. For a start, it hadn't been done since the last US exercise in 1985. More importantly, it proved that if the Chinese wanted, they could take out satellites at will. It was, according to Scott Pace, former associate administrator at Nasa and now director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, a "surprisingly dirty" move. Dirty in all senses: a cloud of debris from the collision now stretches hazardously for hundreds of miles in space.

Pace, Shank and many other American ­Establishment observers studiously avoid talking of a new space race. So do the Chinese. After the anti-satellite test, they insisted that their intentions were innocent: “Neither has China participated, nor will it participate in an arms race in outer space in any form.” In any case, according to Pace, China is years behind – “roughly in the mid- to late-Sixties period” – in the technology it is creating. He refers to the Chinese space programme, and that of the other emerging giant, India, with a kind of avuncular benevolence. The United States “would be happy to see them on the moon”, he says, yet still he is wary. “There are aspects that look benign, and there are aspects that look worrisome . . . There’s not a lot of insight into who everyone is and how decisions are made.”

This seems to be an understatement. Cheng says no one "had a clue" what was going on when the 2007 anti-satellite test happened. The Chinese are not forthcoming about their space programme; no one was willing to be interviewed for this article. When Michael Griffin went on the first official Nasa trip to China's space facilities in 2006 he didn't get anywhere near a launch site. In his version of events, it was like "a first date, if you will", each side coyly sizing up the other. Others saw it as a clear message from the Chinese that there are aspects of their space programme which are not for sharing.

The stakes could be very high. Yuan believes it is not inconceivable that there could be war at some point between China and the United States, possibly provoked by US support for Taiwan's democratic system, a policy that has long riled Beijing, which insists the island is part of China. The new Taiwanese government has improved relations but, says Yuan, "the problem has not been solved . . . [The Chinese] still have to prepare for a potential conflict."

What this conflict might actually look like is a question that intrigues John Sheldon, an ebullient professor at the US air force's graduate school for air and space power strategy in Alabama. "When I'm teaching US officers I tell them, 'Whatever you imagine space war is going to look like, you're wrong. Darth Vader, Star Trek - get it out of your head . . .'" Instead, he says, it will be "very real, and at the same time rather subtle and mundane", because nobody actually knows how a space war might start, or if we would even know that it had. It could be the jamming of a signal to a satellite, or a software virus that disrupts enemy communications. Or it might simply be "six guys who hide in the bushes and eat snakes for two weeks and kick down the door of your ground station". Either way, "We'll be looking over our shoulders and wondering, 'What the hell happened there?'"

A deterioration in Sino-US relations is in nobody's interests. On a visit to Beijing at the start of last month to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the former US president Jimmy Carter described their bond as being the most important relationship in the world today. Many observers hope that the new president will handle that relationship differently from his immediate predecessor, whose administration's anti-Chinese sentiment one insider characterised as "visceral".

For their part, the Chinese clearly want President Barack Obama to sit up and listen: they released their latest defence white paper describing (though somewhat opaquely) their nuclear capability on the day of his election. Even before he entered the Oval Office, however, Obama's transition team was talking to the Pentagon and Nasa about speeding up production of new military rockets. Recent reports speculate that Obama might merge the two organisations' space programmes - a move that, paradoxically, would mimic the Chinese arrangement. Like it or not, this space race is on.

timeline: the long march into space

    1958 Tiuquan, China's first satellite launch centre, is founded

    1966 The country tests its first guided nuclear missile

    1970 Launch of the first Chinese satellite, the Dong Fang Hong I

    1987 The Chinese become involved in the international space industry, providing services for the European aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale-Matra

    1990 China launches its first communications satellite

    1992 The Chinese officially begin the country's manned space flight programme

    1999 The first unmanned space flight completes its 21-hour voyage

    2001 The US unilaterally withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. China's muted response ignites fears of a new space race

    2003 Launch of China's first manned mission, making it the third country to send a man (Yang Liwei, pictured below) into space

    2007 China shoots down an old satellite using anti-ballistic missiles, prompting warnings in the US of a future "star wars"

    2008 Dongfan Chung is indicted for passing US space secrets to the Chinese government

    2008 The former fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang carries out China's first ever spacewalk

Kate Ferguson