China space goals sets up new frontier in the tech battle with the U.S.

A Long March-7 Y3 carrier rocket carrying the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft blasts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on May 29, 2021 in Wenchang, Hainan Province of China.

Yuan Chen | VCG | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which sparked a space race with the U.S.

China, however, was nowhere to be seen.

While the U.S. and the Soviet Union were battling for superiority in this new domain, Mao Zedong, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reportedly said: “China cannot even put a potato in space.”

Fast forward more than six decades and President Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, is seen congratulating three astronauts who were sent to the country’s own space station earlier this month.

Since Mao’s comments, China has launched satellites, sent humans to space and is now planning to build a base on Mars, achievements and ambitions Beijing has highlighted as the centennial of the CCP’s founding approaches.

President Xi Jinping has declared that China’s ‘Space Dream’ is to overtake all nations and become the leading space power by 2045.

Christopher Newman

professor of space law and policy, Northumbria University

Space is now another battleground between the U.S. and China amid a broader technological rivalry for supremacy, one that could have scientific and military implications on Earth.

“President Xi Jinping has declared that China’s ‘Space Dream’ is to overtake all nations and become the leading space power by 2045,” said Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at the U.K.’s Northumbria University. “This all feeds into China’s ambition to be the world’s single science and technology superpower.”

Why space?

While experts doubt it could spiral into war in space, extra-terrestrial activities can support military operations on Earth.

Space achievements are also about the optics.

Through space exploration to the Moon or to Mars, “China and the U.S. display their technological sophistication to the domestic audience and the world, increasing their domestic and international prestige, domestic legitimacy and international influence,” Mosteshar and Beischl said.

China’s space ambitions

“The United States remains ahead overall in all areas of space capability, but China is rapidly closing that lead.

Scott Pace

director of the Space Policy Institute, Elliott School of International Affairs

Patents are seen as one way to help define and control standards for next-generation technologies — a goal for China in many different sectors, including telecommunications to artificial intelligence.

“These patents do not just signify the level of innovation in China related to space, but also a well thought of strategy to protect these innovations to gain economic advantage for its space related tech,” said Vikas Jha, assistant vice president for intellectual property solutions at GreyB.

“In the near future, most of the patents in cosmonautics will be owned by China (unless others follow suit), meaning China can become a gatekeeper for the use of space tech for both private players and governments. This is in line with the Chinese strategy of become a superpower not just on Earth, but also in space.”

U.S.-China space tensions

The U.S. and China are already battling for dominance in areas from semiconductor development to artificial intelligence. Space will be another frontier, even as the U.S. is dominating in that area for now.

“The United States remains ahead overall in all areas of space capability, but China is rapidly closing that lead,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told CNBC.

“The United States has a strong policy for space exploration, a clear direction, and capable allies and partners,” he said. “The challenge for the United States is not so much what China does, but how well and how quickly the United States implements its own plans.”

Read more about China from CNBC Pro

But widening political differences between China and the U.S. can also spill into the space arena.

One example is a disagreement last year between the two nations over the so-called Artemis Accords, an agreement led by NASA that looks to create rules around responsible and fair space exploration. Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.K all signed up. China didn’t.

“The polarisation of space activity along geopolitical lines pause is a key and possibly existential threat to human space activity,” Northumbria University’s Newman said.

“To China and its allies, the Accords represent an attempt to bypass traditional forum for international decision making,” he added.

“It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to achieve the kind of unified agreements that are necessary in order to deal with problems such as space debris, space traffic management and the exploitation of extra-terrestrial resources.”

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