Developments in Asia-Pacific’s Space Industry

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Developments in Asia-Pacific’s Space Industry

Insights from Benjamin Charlton. 

Developments in Asia-Pacific’s Space Industry
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Benjamin Charlton, senior analyst for Asia Pacific at Oxford Analytica in London, is the 357th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify the top three trends in the Asia-Pacific’s space industry. 

One big trend is the growing recognition by regional governments of space as a vital part of national security. For instance, if China wants to control an area as large as the South China Sea, it has to be able to see what’s going on there, and the only practical way to do that is with satellites. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, meanwhile, don’t want to have to rely completely on the U.S. to tell them what the Chinese and North Koreans are up to, so they’re developing their capabilities, which supplement those of the U.S. and are tailored more specifically to their own needs.

Another trend is the emergence in China and Japan especially of small, private commercial space start-ups, which are inspired by SpaceX and other “New Space” firms in the U.S. None of them come close to SpaceX, but some of them are very innovative. It’s certainly feasible that important new players could emerge from East Asia in the medium term.

A third trend is the subtle shift in the long-term focus of government space programs towards natural resources. The Chinese human spaceflight program and the multinational Artemis program, in which Japan is an important partner, are both eyeing resources at the lunar south pole. Both countries are working on technology for building orbital solar power plants for beaming energy back to earth. Both countries are interested in mining asteroids, and Japan has actually passed a law to promote the exploitation of space resources.

Examine cooperation and competition in space developments among China, Japan, India, Australia, and other key countries.  

China’s space activities clearly are competitive and clearly take the U.S. as a benchmark, not the other Asian space powers. At the same time, Beijing presents its civil space activities as cooperative, albeit China-led. It hosts other countries’ experiments and plans to launch foreign astronauts. This makes China look less threatening and frames it as an alternative to the U.S. for countries that want to get involved in space exploration but need a more advanced partner in order to do so.

China is now unambiguously the world’s number two space power in almost every area. Other Asian countries naturally see China as a benchmark in some sense, but they’re not directly competing because they know it’s not realistic to aspire to match China across the spectrum of space activities.

A possible exception is India, which might unofficially be hoping it can catch up eventually. India is independent as a matter of principle. It punches well above its weight in terms of both the country’s overall development level and what it achieves with a small budget, but it’s not generally on the cutting edge the way China and Japan are.

Japan cooperates very closely with NASA and ESA on space exploration. JAXA is an integral part of the International Space Station and is fully on board with the Artemis moon program, and it’s a genuinely valuable partner. At the same time, Japan has found its own niche in cutting-edge missions to asteroids.

South Korea probably sees Japan as its peer and benchmark. Space is one area of advanced technology in which South Korea punches below its weight. It recently launched an ambitious effort to catch up, but it’s starting from a long way behind and working on a small budget.

Analyze the politics of space vis-à-vis China-U.S. competition in the Asia Pacific.  

China is nowhere near a peer of the U.S. yet, but it’s the only country that could plausibly become one. There is zero cooperation between them in space, so Washington sees China purely as a rival.

Space has a bearing on many aspects of U.S.-China competition: military capabilities, high-tech commercial markets, strategic independence, and the pursuit of allies and partners.

In the military realm, the U.S. focuses on resilience. It’s working to make its satellites more difficult to attack and easier to replace if they’re damaged. But it also has the capability to weaponize other technology, in particular ballistic missile defense systems.

Beijing still seems to be developing anti-satellite missiles and possibly “weaponized” satellites, though it hasn’t carried out a destructive test since 2007. At the same time, China has long been pushing for a multilateral treaty to ban the placement of weapons in space. The U.S. rejects this as insincere and unverifiable.

Compare and contrast government and commercial developments in the Asia-Pacific’s space industry.  

The traditional “Big Space” industry centered on the government, big aerospace contractors, and commercial telecommunications still dominate in Asia. SpaceX-type private firms haven’t become a significant force yet.

China opened the launch market to private firms in 2014 and they’ve made fast progress since then, but as always in China, the government/commercial boundary is blurred. A lot of the leading start-ups are actually backed by big SOEs or government funds.

Assess the impact of space developments in Asia-Pacific countries on global space policy.

Of the six countries in the world that can reliably launch satellites, three are Asia-Pacific states. This lets them establish “facts on the ground” in orbit (forgive a mixed metaphor), which gives them disproportionate influence on international norms and governance in space.

Japan and South Korea have signed up for a U.S. initiative called the Artemis Accords, which are an early attempt to establish international guidelines for missions to the moon and beyond, in anticipation of these becoming more frequent in the coming years. For now, this is mostly about legitimizing the U.S. position, since these countries won’t be carrying out very much independent activity beyond Earth orbit.

China might not disagree with the substance of the Artemis Accords ̶̶ it has been silent on the matter ̶̶ but it won’t sign them because it doesn’t want to confer legitimacy on what is clearly a U.S.-led initiative outside the U.N. system.