Space: The new frontier of the US-China rivalry
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Space: The new frontier of the US-China rivalry

NOT satisfied with challenging US supremacy in politics and trade, China is looking to a new frontier that for too long has been dominated by America – space.

Beijing’s mission to be the first in the world to land a prob on the far side of the moon is about to be realised, with the Chang’e-4 due to touch down on Jan 3. But this is just the first in a long line of planned space-exploration milestones, including ambitious plans to operate a manned lunar base by 2030.

China is best positioned to win the new 21st-century space race, Namrata Goswami, an expert on China’s space programme at Auburn University Futures Lab in Alabama, told The Wall Street Journal.


Student volunteers are seen inside the Lunar Palace 1, a laboratory simulating a lunar-like environment, as they prepare to leave the site in Beijing on May 15, 2018. A group of Chinese volunteers emerged from 110 days of isolation in a virtual “lunar lab”, Chinese media reported on May 15, as the country pursues its ambition to put people on the moon. Source: AFP

The US and China are now the main contenders in a race to determine “who will be in a position to obtain the vast resources in space, secure the routes of trade and write the rules of space commerce,” she said.

The rivalry between the two on Earth is reaching a zenith with an escalating trade war threatening to tip the world into a new Cold War, as well as China’s ongoing efforts to undermine American supremacy and take its place with generous international investment and its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

That competition is set to take to the skies as the US also steps up its space programme in response to China’s growing interest.

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Following a 2016 House Subcommittee on Space hearing entitled “Are we losing the space race to China?”, the government outlined plans for manned missions to the moon and Mars and started preparations for a new space force under the direction of President Donald Trump.

China’s President Xi Jinping has reiterated that space exploration is an essential part of China’s growth. In an address to astronauts on the country’s first orbital space lab in 2013, he called it “part of the dream to make China stronger,” according to the Journal.

While China was a late starter in the field, and its funds significantly smaller than those assigned to the US space programme, Beijing’s plan has been more focused with clear, achievable goals and support from the highest levels of government.


A partial model of Chinese space station is seen on display at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, south China’s Guangdong province on November 6, 2018. Source: AFP/Wang Zhao

“China sets long-term goals and meets them,” said Goswami.

“They see the moon as a vast energy resource for sustainable development. Their plan is to industrialise the moon.”

And they’re not wasting any time in making it happen. In 2018, China sent more rockets into orbit than any other country – a total of 36; six more than the US.

The schedule is to have a full space station up and running by 2022 – around the same time the current International Space Station (ISS) is due to retire. This leaves China with the only operating platform of this kind and in the driver’s seat when it comes to onboard scientific research.

America’s move to ban China from the ISS could well come back to haunt it. It is still unclear if Beijing will see this power as an opportunity to cut-out the US or, instead, make it a site of international cooperation.


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