China’s growth trajectory overall and more particularly in the space domain has been impressive. However, John Hickman’s categorical assertions in a recent Foreign Policy article that China is catching up and “may surpass the United States… to become the world’s preeminent spacefaring power” seems to us a touch far-fetched.
Certainly Hickman is right about Chinese determination and the “unquantifiable” factor of “an extraordinary sense of historical grievance” being a major driver of Chinese space dreams. China attributes its “military technological backwardness” to its past national humiliation at the hands of other major powers. Indeed, this is an important part of the national psyche and helps drives the Chinese space programs.
The problem lies in the tools needed to turn determination into material outcomes. The most important: China has nothing near the commercial space sector that the U.S. boasts. Sure, NASA now gets less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, but much of America’s true capabilities are embedded in its private sector, which plays a much larger role than its equivalent does in China’s space sector and gives the U.S. a major advantage in space technology innovation. Not to mention the fact that the high-tech and defense sectors also contribute and the U.S. lead there is not going to disappear anytime in the next several decades.
China is taking steps to beef up its own commercial space sector (read: state-owned enterprises) but it still lacks the massive private-sector investment in R&D that will be vital to sustaining the success of any space program. For now, China must rely on public investment to advance its space program.
A Need for Innovation
More importantly, China does not innovate, it copies. That helps it catch up, but without innovation China will have difficulty taking over the top spot. Its growth looks like a parabola, approaching the number one spot before falling away.
Although China’s space program has come a long way since its launch failures in 1995 and 1996, that dramatic rise has been aided by the reverse engineering of Russian technology. For instance, many observers believe that the Shenzhou space capsule that heralded China’s manned space flight was based largely on the Russian Soyuz capsule. However, China’s ability to catch up with the other space superpowers by copying alone is fast approaching its limits. This is not helped by U.S. moves to isolate China with regard to international cooperation in space. The latter’s access to the latest technologies has consequently been restricted, a fact that even the Chinese are realizing, reflected in their recent drive to focus more on innovation.
Moreover, China lags significantly behind the U.S. generally in scientific innovation. Consider, as an example, that the U.S. is at the vanguard of revolutionizing manufacturing techniques with the use of 3D printing, which it intends to utilize in the International Space Station, or the involvement of NASA scientists in experiments that could bring them closer to the development of a warp-speed engine.
If ambition is cited as a factor for the possibility of Chinese dominance in space, then surely one must consider the U.S. aspiration to explore the far reaches of space. Even if China is quickly catching up with U.S. dominance in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), its program is largely restricted to that realm. The U.S. meanwhile has set its sights beyond our planet’s periphery.