China: The Next Aerospace Superpower
Matthew Greenwood posted on September 02, 2019 |
The Chinese Central Government has made aerospace a top economic and scientific priority.

China has injected rocket fuel into its aerospace industry as it pursues the goal of becoming a global leader in the arena. Aerospace development is key for the country’s continued economic growth. The government expects it will boost advanced manufacturing technologies while reducing China’s dependency on the U.S. and other countries in the high-tech arena.

How close is China to reaching its goal? Let’s look at Chinese activity in four key aerospace sectors.

Satellite and Launch Services

In 2014 the Chinese government opened its launch- and small-satellite industries to private investment, resulting in a wide-ranging civil-military national strategy. Select private firms get access to restricted government technologies. In return, they provide private-sector innovation and efficiencies to the state space program.

“We are seeing accelerated private sector development because of this integration of start-ups to state-owned defense contractors who are able to offer pricing well below competition. This is largely possible because of the integrated structure of its industrial base,” said Leena Pivovarova, Northern Sky Research analyst.

iSpace recently made history by becoming the first private Chinese company to successfully launch a satellite into orbit. Two other companies, Landspace and OneSpace, are close behind. They actually attempted launches before iSpace but were unsuccessful.

There is plenty of competition among China’s rocket makers. Since launches are only allowed at Chinese military sites, these companies have to work closely with the military and state aerospace authority—but they can also benefit from access to otherwise restricted technologies and infrastructure.

Landspace’s two-stage Zhuque-2 rocket, powered by liquid methane-liquid oxygen engines, has a test flight scheduled for 2020. The launcher will be capable of delivering a 4,000-kilogram payload capacity to a 200-kilometer low-Earth orbit.

iSpace is working on its reusable Hyperbola-2 rocket and is scheduled for a test flight in 2021. It will be capable of launching payloads to a 500 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) with 1.1 metric tons of cargo if the rocket is expendable, or 700 kilograms if it’s reusable.

Relative newcomer Galactic Energy is developing an RP-1/liquid oxygen launch vehicle named Pallas-1. It aims to roll out a solid propellant Ceres-1 launch vehicle in March 2020. A satellite and two passengers are already booked for the launch.

China Rocket Co. Ltd., a commercial spinoff from China’s giant state-owned space contractor, is building its solid propellant Jielong-1 rocket, which could launch 150 kilograms into a 700-kilometer SSO.


60 years of Chinese space exploration.

China’s reported $8 billion space budget is estimated to be the second biggest in the world, trailing only the U.S.—though the American budget is twice as big.

The country made headlines when it landed the Chang’e 4 lunar lander on the far side of the moon. China intends to send a probe to Mars as early as next year and has gone so far as to build a simulation Mars base in the barren desert of Gansu province.

China also plans to build a permanent research station on the Moon and deploy its own space station within a decade. Assembly is expected to begin in 2020.


Eight of the top 25 defense contractors in the world are Chinese. Last year, they weren’t even in the top 100. The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) leads the way with nearly $25 billion in 2018 sales.

AVIC makes the fifth-generation J-20 fighter, which China claims is superior to the F-35. It’s equipped with beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) and short range air-to-air missiles (SRAAM). Each weapon features advanced targeting and maneuverability technologies, though details are unknown. It’s also unknown how many of the jets are in active service, and the Chinese military isn’t about to share that intel.

The J-20 fighter jet.
The J-20 fighter jet.

AVIC also produces the mysterious new Hong-20 stealth bomber. Little is known about this aircraft, but it looks like the B-2 bomber and could enter active service by 2025. It is reported to have a maximum take-off weight of at least 200 tons and a 45-ton payload, with a range of 5,280 miles. It will be capable of carrying nukes and perhaps even hypersonic cruise missiles, as well as is expected to reach subsonic speeds.

This is the closest we’ll get to seeing the Hong-20 for now.
This is the closest we’ll get to seeing the Hong-20 for now.

China is also investing heavily in hypersonic weapons

“The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority. The same may not be true for China,” stated former Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Work and co-author Greg Grant in a recent report.

Commercial Aerospace

This is the sector where China lags farthest behind. But analysts predict that China will become the biggest passenger aviation market in the world within the next five years.

State-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, aims to challenge Boeing and Airbus in the Chinese market. Comac has built two jets, the ARJ21 and C919. The 90-seat ARJ21, Comac’s only active plane, is considered inferior to competitors like Embraer and Bombardier.

The Comac ARJ21.
The Comac ARJ21.

The C919 is more ambitious. The 168-seat passenger jet is designed to take on the 737 MAX and A320neo. However, its development has been plagued by delays. It flew for the first time in 2017, originally promised for 2014, and deliveries have been pushed back from 2020 to 2021.

The Comac C919.
The Comac C919.

Comac aircraft are only certified for flight in China. To really compete globally, they will have to get FAA approval, which may not happen any time soon. In the meantime, the planes will have full access to China’s booming aviation market—at a time when one of its competitors, the 737 MAX, is grounded.


Under the cloud of a looming trade war with the U.S., China is determined to catch its American rival and become one of the top dogs in global aerospace. The government is putting resources and money into the effort.

“They have a strategic, long-term set of goals and work deliberately and systematically to achieve those goals,” said Kathy Laurini, former NASA senior advisor.

Which begs the question: How will the U.S. respond?

TEDx talk on the rise of China.

Read more about China’s increasing leadership in advanced manufacturing at China Is Overtaking the U.S. in Artificial Intelligence.

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