China in the Race to Low Earth Orbit: Perspectives on the Future Internet Constellation Guowang Asie.Visions, No. 136, April 2023
In April 2021, the Chinese government officially, but rather quietly, established a new state-owned enterprise (SOE) named China SatNet. Its mission: build out China’s “mega-constellation” program for low Earth orbiting internet satellites, known as Guowang (“national network”).
Several scattered programs had already been launched in China since 2018, and the establishment of this new SOE appears aimed at streamlining and accelerating the development and deployment of the future national constellation.
China's goal is to position itself in the highly strategic sector that is space-based broadband mobile telecommunication networks, so far dominated by the American SpaceX and its Starlink constellation. These constellations promise significant commercial and military outcomes that have aroused the interest of states.
In this field, Beijing lags behind SpaceX, but demonstrates a fierce determination to catch up and compete with its rivals. China has already registered a request with the International Telecommunications Union to put 12,992 satellites into orbit, or roughly 1,000 more than what has so far been authorized for Starlink.
To achieve its goals, China relies on traditional aerospace and telecommunications SOEs, and now on the newcomer China SatNet. It also relies on an emerging ecosystem of companies and start-ups (GalaxySpace in particular), and encourages local governments to build production parks for the space industry and new launch centers across the country.
China is thus gearing up to achieve its ambitions, but will nevertheless have to face multiple challenges, including the financing of its industry in a constrained economic context, the development of a viable business model which has not yet been proven elsewhere, and above all, the growing strategic and technological rivalry with the United States.