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Space: the final frontier of Sino-US rivalry?

China's development of a space programme threatens to increase Sino-US tension as the latter's dominance of space, with all its military and commercial potential, is undermined.

China’s sky-high space ambitions have the potential to upset the current world order. Within the coming decade, China may become capable of challenging America’s dominance over space and its monopoly over global navigational systems.

Over the past few years, China has engaged in completing high-profile, grand projects like high-speed rail, the world’s biggest airport terminal (since overtaken by Dubai) and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Its space programme, like all else, is a matter of Chinese prestige. On successful completion, it will be yet another grand feather in China’s cap signalling its ambition of becoming a world power.

China’s ambitious space programme has three tracks. Track one is the setting up of China’s own space station. The Chinese were successful in launching their first astronaut or taikonaut into space in 2003. Since then, China’s space programme has witnessed major breakthroughs. By summer 2011, it plans to launch its first unmanned space module called ‘Tiangong – 1’. The ‘Shenzhou – 8’, scheduled for later this year (2011), will attempt to dock with the ‘Tiangong – 1’. Both these launches are the initial stages of Chinese plans for setting up a space station by 2015. Once its space station is completed, China will become the third country in the world, after Russia and the US to do so with indigenous technology.

The second track is China’s lunar ambitions, scheduled to be carried out over three phases. The first phase of this was successfully completed in October 2010 with the launch of the “Chang’e – 2” lunar orbiter. By 2020, China could actually land its first astronaut on the moon. The third track of its space programme involves the development of a Chinese global navigational system called ‘Beidou’. Until now, the US has had a monopoly over navigation systems with its global positioning system (GPS). China aims to make ‘Beidou’ available to Asia-Pacific by 2012, which will go global by 2020.

China’s programme could have repercussions for the Sino-US relationship. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent US visit resulted in a number of trade and investment deals being inked between the two countries. However, space was not one of them even though according to Washington, the 4 main areas of potential cooperation with China include space alongside cyber-security, missile defense and nuclear weapons. But since mutual trust is important for any kind of cooperation between the two nations, space is a ‘no-go’.

The US and Chinese space programmes cannot be compared directly. The American programme precedes China’s by at least 40 years and China has yet to land its first man on moon. The US satellite and spacecraft technology is still years ahead of China. But China is on the fast track right now. In 2011 alone, China aims to put more than twenty vehicles into space. Compared to this, the US space programme is in a state of inertia. It has had to scrap its ‘Constellation Program’ since the struggling American economy cannot afford the huge price tag attached to the programme at present.

Details of the Chinese space programme remain undisclosed and even its civilian component is run primarily by its military. For the US, this limits strategic cooperation to a large extent. The US is also wary of China’s growing military ambitions. China has recently tested its first stealth fighter aircraft. Since space technology almost always has military uses like missile development and remote monitoring and control, it is likely that a successful space programme in China would bolster its military and naval prowess. Hence, the US is clearly uneasy about the programme even though the administration has downplayed reports of China’s goal of a manned moon mission.  

For China, the US skepticism over its space programme as well as its ban on high-tech exports to China is a hurdle to cooperation in space. The navigational system ‘Beidou’ is crucial for the Chinese military as presently it has to depend on the US GPS. The Chinese fear is that this GPS could be blocked or manipulated in case of a conflict.

The US is also jittery because of fears of technology proliferation since China’s allies include countries like Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Supremacy in space would also aid China in elevating it to the status of a global superpower. Commercially too, an advanced space programme could eventually result in China being first in the race to extract lunar resources like uranium and titanium.

Over the next few years, it is unlikely that the speed of China’s progress in its space programme will go down. Also, as it achieves its goals, China’s programme will definitely make many countries around the world nervous. Hence, with each of China’s successes, the world will see other countries taking frantic action to catch up with it. It is also possible that with a robust and thriving space programme in its kitty, China may be the next nation to be included in International Space Station (ISS). Such a situation may lessen the atmosphere of mutual suspicion to a certain degree.

About the author

Sahiba Trivedi works for Strategic Foresight Group, a think-tank based in Mumbai as a Research Analyst. She works on Asia with focus on Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and China on issues pertaining to security and sustainable development. 


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