If you have been reading the Chinese media lately, there will be little you don’t know about the recent successful Shenzhou VII mission. China independently conducted a spacewalk and became only the third nation behind the US and Russia to send one of their countrymen into space. From the astronauts’ homecoming parade to adaptations of space food for civilian use, the pride and glory of the nation has been centre stage. And rightly so.
The moment Zhai Zhigang exited the Shenzhou VII spacecraft and became the first Chinese man to walk in space, China’s aspirations of becoming a major player in space took another step towards fruition. While much of the commentary focused on the national pride associated with such a feat, it is what China can do with its space capability that is of interest to other space-faring nations — namely the United States.
Space: vast, unconquered, unclaimed. Scientists can wax lyrical about the possibilities for discovery and exploration in the distant reaches of the universe. The mysteries of outer space likewise remain a hot topic in popular literature. But talk to a political scientist or a strategic analyst and they may have another view of what space offers — especially to the "nation state."
In the 21st century, space it is a crucial theatre during warfare. Satellites in space are vital for military communication, and if attacked by an enemy nation, can disrupt the command system of an army or navy. Remember when the Chinese destroyed an old weather satellite and caused so much alarm among the Pentagon brass? The concern was that this demonstrated a capability to deploy anti-satellite weaponry — if for example, China and the Unites States went to war over Taiwan.
Space is also vital to considerations of national and civil security — just think about how much of our daily communication relies on satellites. The US concern is that economic, military and national security could be breached if a "peer competitor" — read China -sought to destroy satellites or got an "edge" in space. Military command systems could go down, and anything from business systems to nuclear facilities could suffer as a result. This is the reality of our increasingly technological world. The "revolution in military affairs" and C4ISR systems are routinely touted by Department Of Defence officials as the keys to 21st century warfare.
There is much argument over what this latest mission means as far as Chinese military "intentions" in space are concerned — as well as their capability. There are those such as Charles P. Vick, a specialist in Russian space activity from GlobalSecurity.org, who claim the Chinese missions have a dual purpose — that is, that scientific goals mask military agendas. He discusses Chinese military involvement in the mission, the lack of transparency in the space program and budget, and points to a penchant for technological espionage.
It’s a view that falls in line with Pentagon own assessment — that is, that China is seeking to challenge America’s military domination of space by developing its own capabilities. Take a look at this year’s Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China and you’ll have some idea of what I am talking about.
Vick also raises the race for energy resources, the Moon having a particle known as Helium 3 that is vital to the development of nuclear fusion. The idea is that whoever gets their hands on buckets of Helium 3 will win an energy war, and thus be able to best transform their society — as societies were tranformed by the resource wars of previous centuries.
But there are those who find this reasoning just a little convenient for Pentagon planners and those seeking to benefit from a "space race." Jeff Foust from The Space Review sees little in this mission to distinguish it from other space adventures: prestige and regional competition with powers like Japan and India. (However even he recognises that China’s anti-satellite (or ASAT as it’s known in defence lingo) capabilities are cause for concern for American defence planners.) As for China making great leaps in space, he points out they are making slow progress compared to the Soviet program during the Cold War. It is sentiment echoed in China by Jiao Weixin from Peking University.
Foust also believes any talk of a Cold War-type space race benefits vested interests keen for a return to the Cold War space budget:
"I think there are a number of people in the US that are trying to [hype]what China is doing in space, particularly with its manned program, as a means of help generating additional support for US based programs, in particular the NASA program, given that there’s such difficulty in getting funding for NASA or getting increased funding for NASA. One tool that obviously worked back in the 1960s was to say that the United States is in a race with the Soviet Union to go to the moon and we very clearly were. And that helped win over a lot of political support that generated a lot of funding for NASA."
As for Helium 3, he says nuclear fusion reactors are a long way off. Whether large quantities can be taken from the lunar surface is another matter altogether.
There is no doubt that China is keen to make a Moon landing. landing. Wang Yongzhi, former chief designer of China’s manned space program was quoted in The China Daily: "The moon is the closest space entity to Earth, the starting point and base for pioneering the exploration of deep space, so a manned landing on the moon should be our future strategic objective."
The US Government is clearly determined not to assist China in its space program, and it has placed tight restrictions on US companies attempting to export "dual purpose" technology that could be used for both military and civilian uses — technology which frequently includes space hardware as well. That posture suggests there are real Cold War elements in the current atmoshphere.
Alongside the celebration of the Chinese space mission, Shu Quansheng, a Shanghai-born, naturalised US citizen, was arrested late last month for allegedly exporting rocket data and technology to China and trying to bribe Chinese officials.
In the timing of their charges against Shu, the US is sending a message that their relationship to China over this contested frontier of space may not be warlike but it’s certainly very cold.
You can hear interviews on the recent Chinese mission at www.asia2025.net
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