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The Coming U.S.-China Space Race

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China Power

The Coming U.S.-China Space Race

With Beijing and Washington increasingly looking to the stars, their competition on Earth may also grace the heavens.

The gold-class landing of the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet on August 6th was an awe-inspiring feat of human ingenuity. It was also a quintessentially American feat, as Dr. John Holdren emphasized in a speech immediately after Curiosity’s successful landing:

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” he said, “there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity…sitting on the surface of Mars now.”

President Obama similarly praised this event as “a point of national pride far into the future” and a symbol of “our preeminence – not just in space, but here on Earth.”

“In your face, China!” was the not-so-subtle subtext, as Michael Brooks pointed out.

The foreign policy peanut gallery also had a field day. The Telegraph paraphrased one Mars expert as suggesting that the untimely loss of Curiosity “could have meant effectively an end to the U.S. venturing into space for at least a generation, and the keys to the solar system would have been handed to the Chinese.” The paper added: “But for now, the Red Planet is firmly in American hands.”

A little self-congratulation is warranted; this was a truly historic occasion. But in such stark terms, these statements hint at shaken U.S. confidence and self-reassurance both on Earth and in the heavens.

This amazing feat in human space exploration is revealing of the geopolitical context back on Planet Earth. In particular, this event marks a milestone in the present trend of an expanding U.S.-China rivalry, and a budding military-technological space race.

Brooks offers a useful analogy of space exploration as an Olympic contest; both are about national pride. American successes, both in London and on Mars, have probably wounded China’s national pride. The contrast between Curiosity’s success and the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission – on which China’s Yinghuo-1 rover was bound for a Martian moon – is striking. In other words, “Curiosity’s success is also likely to prevent the Chinese accepting America’s offer to collaborate on future Mars missions.”

China and the U.S. are also assuming increasingly competitive stances on the diplomatic front. China will reportedly not attend the next EU-sponsored negotiations for a Space Code of Conduct, scheduled for October 2012. Some have seen this as an effort by China (and Russia) to score national prestige points by achieving movement on their proposed Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), rather than the Western-inspired Code of Conduct.

These competitive dynamics might seem trivial, even Olympic-spirited, were they not part of a broader context of growing U.S.-China tensions, from the seas of Asia to the deserts of Mars. Nor should we forget the military significance of technological superiority in space in any modern war.

The French strategist Vauban coined the military dictum: “He who holds the height holds the bottom.” Although space has no natural defenses, this has some resonance in outer space politics.

As early as 2003 prescient analysts predicted that the U.S. and China were “on the threshold of a space race that could radically influence international security.”

Dr. John Hickman recently issued a stark warning about China’s lunar ambitions, suggesting that a future Chinese space base was probable due to loopholes in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Even if decades away, a future compromised of great powers scrambling to colonize space, largely fuelled by an Asian space race, is more plausible than we might imagine. The “terrestrial parochialism” of international politics, and of everyday life, makes this future appear more distant than it may actually be. Were it to materialize, the geopolitical implications on Earth would be dramatic. One need only recall how the colonial Scramble for Africa prefaced World War One among the European powers.

The nascent U.S.-China space race is likely to become increasingly militarized. Consider the military appeal of establishing “space superiority” by launching a preventive strike, thereby blinding an enemy’s satellites and, by extension, his command and control capabilities. The logic of space warfare would loom large at the outset of any U.S.-China hot conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Officially, as Erik Seedhouse noted, the “Chinese and the US both appear to attach great importance to the prevention of an arms race in space.” In practice, however, such scientific breakthroughs as the Curiosity landing have “provided the conditions for space to become a platform for warfare – a situation China and the U.S. both understand and neither seems willing to avoid.”

This space race is now in full swing, and the race to prevent it is stalling.

Daryl Morini is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, specializing in preventive diplomacy. He is Deputy Editor of e-International Relations