China’s silent sleuthing in Space

Jan Harrison | China Fellow

Down on Earth, sound propagating from a television, mobile phone, computer or (even heaven forbid) a radio, captivate and inform the listener of a global pandemic. But there is no sound in Space. There are no news anchors and no political spotlight. There is, as obvious as it may seem, just lots and lots of space.

China - having survived the initial onslaught of COVID-19 - has been making tremendous advances in space exploration, and doing so relatively quietly. Although having a few setbacks earlier this year - most notably the failure of its Long March 3B rocket to reach orbit - China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) is on course to launch more than 40 rockets as part of its preparation to assemble the first-ever Chinese Space Station.

China is only the third nation to send a human into Earth’s orbit, having joined the elusive group following the 2003 launch of Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou-5. The United States and the former Soviet Union are the only other nations to achieve this milestone, and while Beijing spends only a fraction of the money Washington does on NASA, there has been documented concern–at US government levels–regarding CNSA’s proposed plans in Space. What accompanies this activity in Chinese space exploration are the geopolitical dynamics of another ‘Space Race’, one that has already been dubbed the 'Asian Space Race'.

When a political commentator speaks on a rising China, they often reference competition with the United States or how China’s posturing effects the current unipolar international system. In Space however, it’s a little different. The fact is that, away from all the noise down on Earth, China doesn’t need to compete directly with the United States in Space. There are no tariff wars or debates over telecommunications security. In a way, Space resembles raw and untouched territory of which any nation can more or less occupy.

This July, during a rare Hohmann transfer window, China will launch a rocket that will aim to deliver a rover on Mars by early-to-mid next year. Taking notes from previous lunar explorations and the only Mars rover landing to date–NASA first achieved the feat in 1976–the CNSA is capitalizing on China’s Communist Party’s heavy endorsement of space exploration. The flurry of these launches just so happen to occur as the International Space Station is expected to be decommissioned in the coming decade.

China’s President Xi Jinping touted that the “space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger.” Although Beijing still has a sizeable amount on its plate relating to COVID-19–both economically and politically–it would be naïve to think they aren’t making inroads wherever they can. What’s more interesting is how China increases its aeronautical clout. In order to fully harness the scientific discoveries possible in Space, international collaboration is almost essential. Even NASA, the biggest national space agency, teamed up with Europe, Japan, Canada and its former competitor, Russia, to build the International Space Station. The CNSA could collaborate with another agency or it could go it alone, both options heavily shaping the discussion about Chinese influence in space.

China is at a unique crossroad when it comes to building influence in Space. This is mainly down to its highly developed aeronautical technologies - stemming from significant domestic investment in R&D - but also linked to the nature in which China is positioned against other rising space powers or the lack thereof.

While traditional middle powers such as Australia, South Korea, Canada can exert some form of power and competition within Earth’s atmosphere, their influence diminishes past that point. Only India, both a true middle power and one with a developed national space agency, bodes any form of competition - and that’s if they even want to compete with China.

As China unveils its grand plans to assemble its own space station, the international community will have no choice but to take note. If the vast physical space for political manoeuvring wasn’t enough to tempt a rising nation into the stratosphere and beyond, then the relatively vague and toothless ‘Outer Space Treaty’ is almost an invitation for an all-out raid. Bear in mind that China will most likely keep sensitive mission details and discoveries under wrap, and for obvious reasons.

While we are all attuned to the endless possibilities for ground-breaking discoveries in Space, some nations are going one step further in realizing their potential. Dominance or power in Space has flown under the radar in recent years. It appears that as the world is being drowned out by COVID-19 hysteria, China silently tiptoes itself ever so nearer to a bigger slice of a much bigger pie.

Jan Harrison is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.