China’s reach into space, joining an elite club of nations setting their exploratory sights beyond Earth, is posing a serious challenge to the United States that could have military implications, analysts said.
China on Wednesday successfully launched its second manned space mission, albeit aboard a ship based on an old Soviet design, but Beijing does not plan to stop there.
An unmanned mission to the moon and even an orbiting space station are on the cards, at a time when the world’s top space superpower — the United States — is troubled by a space program often behind schedule and over budget.
“Risk-averse American decision-makers would have to be focused on the possibility that the Chinese will beat us back to the moon. It would be a reasonable worry from the political perspective,” said John Pike, a Washington-based observer of world space and defense programs.
“We’re the sole remaining superpower, the only country that’s sent people to the moon. If the Chinese sent people to the moon, they’d take us down a notch.”
Indeed, China sees its space program as an inevitable part of its bid for the international respect it craves and believes it deserves as the world’s most populous nation and seventh-largest economy.
‘Sense of destiny’
The country has made enormous leaps in its space program since it first sent a satellite into orbit in 1970, though all it did at the time was broadcast a revolutionary song into the void.
“The Chinese have a sense of destiny that is driving them toward an ever-greater standing among humankind,” said Anthony Curtis, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who follows China’s space program. “Given sufficient engineering development time, there is no reason the Chinese programme could not attain the capability and quality of the U.S. program.”
China says it is exploring space for peaceful means, and does not want an arms race in space.
But at the same time, the country is modernizing its military at breakneck speed, with a defense budget that has grown in double digits almost every year. That growth outpaces even its rapid economic growth, worrying it neighbors and the United States.
The Pentagon said in a report in July that it was concerned about China’s military modernisation and economic might, and feared the changing balance of power in Asia could threaten self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.
Is China’s space program really a threat?
Bigger and better eyes in the sky could help China in shifting that balance of power, as could other technology developed in the course of a space programme.
“The same technology that gives a nation the ability to precisely launch rockets powerful enough to carry men into orbit and then bring them back down safely can be applied to the precision firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” Curtis said.
Still, there may be little actual military challenge to the United States.
“Clearly we need to monitor it, but in and of itself China having a space program is certainly no threat to the United States,” said Larry Wortzel, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former U.S. military attache in Beijing.
The United States has remained sanguine in the face of China’s space program, and on Wednesday the State Department welcomed the launch and congratulated Beijing.
In Toyko, a newspaper called for the Japanese government to take the space program more seriously, and raised the possibility that a Chinese space station could threaten global security.
“China is using its space technology as a lever with which to expand its influence in Asia,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial Thursday.
New space race?
Some think that with Washington distracted globally by its war on terror, China could steal a march on the United States in a new space race.
“Both Russia and China have their own military space agendas, and especially manned lunar plans, the challenge of which the U.S. is incapable of matching or exceeding,” said Charles Vick, a senior fellow at the defense information Web site GlobalSecurity.org.
“They are challenging the U.S. predominance on the world stage because it is their belief doctrinally that the U.S. is a has-been world power that can and will be replaced by China along with other nations.”