In 2003, China became only the third nation in history to launch a manned mission to space, joining Russia and the United States in the elite club of orbital powers. Since then, and despite having some serious catching up to do, China’s space program has seen significant advances, including the launch of a form of “precursor” space station of their own, as well successful rover missions to the surface of the moon.

China’s rapid advancements in the orbital realm could, in large part, be credited to the close relationship the nation’s space program maintains with the People’s Liberation Army, China’s national military. Unlike the United States, which operates NASA as a civilian space agency that often receives military personnel on loan, China’s National Space Administration could be better seen as a joint venture between China’s military and their Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for the National Defense.

While it has long been argued that America and Russia both have a history of using their space programs to secure “the ultimate high ground” during ideological conflicts like the Cold War, China has never pretended their space program was about anything else – keeping much of their orbital endeavors classified, and operating under a veil of secrecy.

These deep rooted ties to China’s national defense endeavors are actually the reason China is not represented on the International Space Station, despite the longstanding cooperative relationship between political opponents Russia and America aboard the orbital platform. Both NASA and Roscosmos work independently from the military arms of their own governments, even as those governments amass weapons platforms near one another’s borders in the latest continuation of a near century of staring matches.

A clear sign of just how entrenched in national defense China’s space program is comes from the recent announcement that, for the first time, China will begin recruiting civilians to join their astronaut corps.

China’s full fledged space station is expected to enter into full service by 2020, right around when funding is expected to dry up for the International Space Station from both Russian and American governments. Under NASA’s current plan, that funding will be diverted toward a new station that would orbit the moon, rather than the earth, providing a better launching point for ventures further into deep space.

The United States military has only recently begun taking orbital operations seriously, as lawmakers have started questioning why space-based assets that we rely on for national defense have been left undefended and vulnerable to manipulation or attack from offensive platforms that have already been launched and tested by competitor nations like Russia and China.

First Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei waves after landing on the Inner Mongolian grasslands of northern China Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 after 21 hours in orbit. (AP Photo)

We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, said last month. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti-satellite weapons as a means to reduce U.S. military effectiveness.”