Commentators often refer to China as an "emerging space power." This characterization understates China's current space capabilities. China has in many respects already reached the top tier of spacefaring nations—with profound implications not only for America's own interests in space, but also for the much-touted "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region.
While initially starting well behind the two original space powers, China has slowly but steadily added accomplishments to its space portfolio. In 2011, it conducted nineteen space launches—twelve less than Russia that year but one more than the United States. It has manufactured satellites for domestic use and marketed satellites for export, with customers in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. Chinese spacecraft already have orbited the moon, and Beijing has signaled its intention to land an unmanned probe and possibly even astronauts on the lunar surface.
In late June, China's space endeavors captured headlines across the world when three Chinese astronauts manually docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module. In doing so, China became only the third nation besides the United States and Russia to accomplish this complex maneuver. It also demonstrated a capability it will need to one day assemble and operate a permanently manned space station.