China’s space sector is growing rapidly, in line with its ambition to establish a robotic outpost on the moon by the end of the next decade. For now, Beijing is working with other countries off-planet, but such partnerships may soon be unavailable. As the U.S.-China technological cold war spreads into space, third countries will face growing pressure to choose sides.
America’s response to China’s growing 5G capabilities provides a likely template for its approach to rivalry in space. Washington has blacklisted the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, urged governments not to work with it in developing 5G networks, and cautioned allies that using Huawei equipment will lead to less intelligence sharing.
Washington justifies its tough approach by asserting that the spread of Huawei 5G networks will give China undue global influence. But the United States is also seeking to preserve American dominance, fearing that Huawei’s 5G expertise threatens U.S. leadership in next-generation technologies.
For other countries, being squeezed between Washington and Beijing presents awkward problems. Acceding to U.S. pressure by banning Huawei hurts competition, delays network rollouts and disrupts commerce. In practice, Huawei is already too entrenched in many countries for bans to be feasible.
Nevertheless, this superpower showdown will likely soon extend into the space economy, another technology area of global importance. U.S. leadership in the cosmos used to be uncontested, but China is catching up. Last year, China launched the most rockets into Earth orbit. In January, it made history by landing the robotic probe Chang’e 4 on the unexplored far side of the moon, in the South Pole-Aitken basin.
In July, Beijing-based Interstellar Glory Space Technology (also known as iSpace) became the first private Chinese company to launch a rocket into orbit. Its four-stage Hyperbola 1 rocket achieved lift off from the Jiuquan space base, located in China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and carried several small satellites and other payloads into an orbit approximately 300 kilometers above Earth, according to the company.
At some point, China will offer other countries opportunities to work with it in space. Beijing has already signed dozens of international agreements on space issues, and has cooperated with partners as varied as Algeria, Brazil, France, and Pakistan.
It intends to expand its network, and is inviting other countries to participate in plans to establish a new space station in Earth orbit — a project that conveniently underscores growing uncertainty about the fate of the International Space Station led by the United States and Russia. Beijing is also developing plans to send a probe to Mars in 2020. After that, scientists hope to explore asteroids and even land on one.
Almost certainly, Washington will try to insist that countries should avoid involvement in Chinese space technology, just as it has sought to isolate Huawei’s 5G technology. This will be especially true for countries that already work closely with the American government. New Zealand and Australia, for instance, respectively launch satellites and monitor deep space communications for NASA.
Washington did not intervene in October 2018 when New Zealand’s space agency signed an agreement with its counterpart in Germany, Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. This agreement may lead to the German space agency using New Zealand’s spaceport in the Māhia Peninsula. Surely, though, Washington would react if New Zealand reached a similar agreement with China’s space agency. If Washington is concerned about security threats from Huawei’s 5G, imagine how it would respond to the prospect of its intelligence agencies sharing launch facilities with China.
Governments should not rush to work with Beijing in space. There are legitimate reasons for caution about partnering with Chinese companies. Recall last year’s Bloomberg Businessweek report that Chinese intelligence services had inserted spyware in server motherboards made by subcontractors in China for California-based Super Micro Computer. The company, which supplies server equipment to many American companies and U.S. government agencies, denies the claims and told customers in December that independent tests had found no malicious hardware in its motherboards. U.S. customers such as Apple and Amazon have also denied Bloomberg’s assertions.
It is certainly conceivable, however, that Chinese companies abroad provide Beijing with intelligence, particularly if they are state-owned. Countries should consider this potential concern, and others, before working with China in the space sector. But the point is that countries should be free to choose to work with China, the United States, both, or neither.
With 5G, it is too late to achieve such flexibility. In the space sector, it is not. But governments need to take measures now that will ensure their ability to resist external pressure in the future. They can do this by signing bilateral agreements with each other, or better yet by signing larger multilateral deals.
They should affirm that they will work with international partners based on nonpolitical criteria. And they should undertake to denounce pressure collectively and publicly, whether it comes from China or from the United States. Countries should also agree that if China or the U.S. attempts to punish smaller countries, then signatories will not take advantage of the situation and undercut each other’s independence.
If, for example, Beijing dislikes a country signing an agreement with the United States and cancels contracts with that country, other countries should avoid stepping in to take those contracts.
Pressure to choose sides in this new space race will start soon. It is almost certain that the space industry will be a major driver of global economic growth. Governments should anticipate both inevitabilities. By being proactive, they can maximize their participation in space and, in so doing, advance their economic wellbeing.
Nicholas Borroz is a director at the Washington-based consultancy platform GlobalWonks and a visiting fellow at Thammasat University’s Institute of East Asian Studies.