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The Chinese Threat to American Leadership in Space (Part II)
Gabriele Garibaldi

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The Chinese threat to American leadership in space
Note that this article was initially published on AFAR on 12/28/2004.

Concerning their geostrategic plans, China has significant reason to enter into conflict with the United States. In order of increasing importance, these areas of dispute include their increasing influence in Central Asia, their interference in Korean affairs, the Spratly islands and Taiwan.

The strategical significance of the Spratly Islands has caused controversy between the two Super Powers. Situated in the southern China Sea, they fall on the most important trading route in the world - one through which 25% of the world's oil products pass, coming from the Middle East and directed towards Japan and the USA - and are surrounded by potential oil-fields.

But it is with regard to Taiwan that the friction with the USA is strongest, particularly in regard to the political arrogance of the current US administration: the invitation proffered by the US to the Taiwanese Defense Minister, Tang Yian-ming, and his consequent meeting with the American vice-Minister of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, has greatly irritated Beijing.

The Taiwanese issue is the fulcrum of the American strategy (which, according to Chinese analysts, even foresees the destabilization of the whole area of influence of China in order to stop its rise) and one that will necessitate a battle of wills between China and the USA in the twenty-first century, a trial of strength for which China is being well prepared.

The U.S. experts believe the Shenzhou 5 mission will provide previously unknown information to the Chinese military, commonly known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in relation to a potential conflict with the United States over Taiwan. Thus, it won’t be a purely science-related exercise. It could hardly be otherwise, as the distinction between civil and military Chinese space programs is non-existent. Consequently, the Shenzhou program is also under the supervision of the “PLA’s General Armament Department”. Indeed, the Shenzhou 5 - as was admitted by Chinese officials - “will have a CCD camera attached to the exterior with a ground resolution of 1.6 m, which could be used for military reconnaissance purposes”.

For the already cited Colonel Stokes, the fact that China has sent a man into Space is not worrisome in itself, but rather indicates the technological level now achieved by China in the field of space carriers, as Beijing - worrying over the possibility of losing definitive control over Taiwan - “is developing space-based capabilities that could be used in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait”, aware that “Space assets will play a major role in any future use of force against Taiwan and in preventing foreign intervention in a Taiwan scenario”. The technical progress derived from initiating the Shenzhou 5 operation and subsequent “manned missions” could be used to develop not only ballistic missiles, but also anti-satellite weapons and mini-satellites for espionage. According to USA experts, Beijing will be able to launch small recognition satellites within the next three to five years to control China's periphery and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

With regard to the space program's success - one that has been supported by a strong political will as the presupposition of its geostrategic vision - China, therefore, has the potential to challenge the US supremacy in Space, especially now that it is supported by significantly increasing funds. In March 2002 the Chinese Financial Minister, Xiang Huaicheng, announced an increase in military expenditure for 2002 of 17.5%, “…bringing the publicly reported total to $20 billion” (NASA currently receives $15.5 billion a year, while "Unclassified U.S. military space programs command a further $8.5 billion a year in federal spending.”). Consequently, this makes China the second greatest military spender in the world and the first in Asia. Moreover, the rate of Chinese economic growth has suggested to American analysts that “annual defense spending could increase in real terms three to four fold between now and 2020”.

The Chinese lunar plans and American anxieties

This information has led the USA to seriously examine the Chinese space challenge, and despite the American advantage, they remain nervous about China's next goal on the agenda: the Moon.

According to Robert Walker, former president of the Commission on the future of the American aerospace industry, China is engaged in an aggressive space program focused on a Moon landing, followed by establishing a permanent base within a decade (according to Japanese experts, China will be able to reach the Moon within three to four years) and eventually aiming for Mars. It will be sufficient for it to spend 1% of its GDP over the next few years in order to provide the financing for a significantly competitive space program.

The USA, on the other hand, at least according to Walker, is no longer able to repeat the Moon mission of thirty-five years ago. This inability to compete in a new Moon race is more than an issue of national pride: it also raises serious strategical questions over China's rising potential as a lunar power.

China, if it succeeded in its goal, would acquire enormous international prestige. However, most significantly, by establishing permanent bases on the Moon, China would gain the ability to exploit lunar resources and therefore gain important technological advantages over other nations (including nuclear fusion, using the helium 3 isotope), with concrete consequences on Earth's activities.

Walker's conclusion is that the Chinese space program has yet to be taken seriously by American politicians. Nevertheless, it represents a serious challenge to the US leadership in Space. The US must answer such a challenge by developing new technologies (for instance, the nuclear plasma propulsion system) in order to reach the Moon and Mars faster than currently possible, and to travel more frequently and thriftily into Earth's low orbit.

George W. Bush had heard Walker's warning, and in the President's 14 January 2004 speech, he relaunched the US space programs with increased fervour. It is impossible not to link the US's renewed enthusiasm to the current race against China's rapid rise in Space strategy. Three months after the success of the Shenzhou 5, China announced that it would launch the next manned mission in 2005, when the new Shenzhou 6 will transport more than just a single astronaut, and will remain in Space for a longer period of time. In the meantime, in 2004 China will launch ten new satellites into orbit. Asked by Western journalists about the Chinese perception of US space programs - there were already rumours some weeks prior to Bush’s speech that the US intended to establish a permanent base on the Moon - the Chinese Foreign Minister responded by diplomatic note, congratulating the USA on the success of its Martian rover Spirit, but neglecting to mention the rumoured US aim of establishing a permanent base on the Moon as a starting point for manned missions towards Mars.

But on 14 January, Bush removed all doubt, revealing his “vision for moon and beyond”. It was a speech aimed at formenting the enthusiasm and patriotic pride of the man in the street (who will have to pay US$1 billion - according to the first estimate - to finance the program), by using Star Trek-esque lingo: “Much remains for us to explore and to learn”. After stating that “the desire to explore and understand is part of our character”, Bush disclosed the ambitious plan that will once again take the USA to the Moon by 2020, where they will establish a launch base for manned missions towards Mars and beyond (Bush didn’t announce when the astronauts will come down to Mars, but, according to White House authorities, this in due by 2030).

“Deny Space to others”: the last chance to stop China

As the situation currently stands, it is clear that the expression “to assure our continued access to space and deny the space to others if necessary” - recurrent, with little variations, in the US military plans - is specifically directed towards China. The Pentagon believes that China has the same intention towards the ousting the United States from Space, and considers its polemic declarations about the “rumoured” US plans of space weaponization - expressed in front of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space - as the weapon to diplomatically damage and slow down the action of the USA, while actively working in secret towards the same objective. According to Larry Wortzel, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, the introduction by the Chinese of a draft treaty devised to act against the US's intent to develop space weapons is misleading (“…because they’re developing their own space-based weapons...”), having no other purpose than to diplomatically damage the USA and thus delay their Theater Missile Defense plan, while China continues with its own plans. According to Richard Fisher of The Jamestown Foundation, the People's Liberation Army is aware that the “control of space” concept - as theorized by the US military - is an objective that China must achieve: “China needs to be able to deny to the United States access and use of space, as they themselves exploit space to support their own forces”.

Several factors, therefore, let one foresee that the impact of the Space challenge between the USA and China will exceed previous expectations about the strategical-military use of Space (spy satellites) and the race to install weapons, both offensively and defensively (concepts that are difficult to distinguish from each other, particularly in regard to the US military ultimate objective to “deny Space to others, if necessary”, suggesting that the offensive dimension will prevail against the defensive one).

While we may not know much about the character of Chinese space policy (with the exception of the declarations of condemnation of any space weaponization plan -but the real intentions of China can be deduced from its will to expel the USA from its own area of infuence), we do know more about China's progress in Space. Meanwhile, it can be asserted definitively that the US is determined to maintain by all means possible (including denying the rest of the world access to Space) their own space leadership, the key to the “Full Spectrum Dominance” and the fundamental presupposition of the unipolar-imperialistic “New American Century”.

The relation between the space dimension and the imperialistic dimension (with “Manifest Destiny” echos) of the USA, is sealed by the conclusions of a book written in 1996 by arms experts George and Meredith Friedman: “Just as by the year 1500 it was apparent that the European experience of power would be its domination of the global seas, it does not take much to see that the American experience of power will rest on the domination of space. Just as Europe expanded war and its power to the global oceans, the United States is expanding war and its power into space and to the planets. Just as Europe shaped the world for a half a millennium [by dominating the oceans by its fleets] so too the United States will shape the world for at least that length of time” - by dominating Space.

Gabriele Garibaldi

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