Beijing has announced that it seeks to conduct the first manned Mars exploration in 2033 and has joined forces with Moscow to launch a roadmap for an international lunar research station to guide Russian-Chinese cooperation and development in space. U.S. military and space policy analysts are concerned that China’s intentions to dominate the space sector should cause concern and alarm in the United States; however, it will not lead to a space race like the U.S.-Soviet one in the 1960s.
China’s Tianwen-1 landing rover, carrying the Zhu Rong rover, touched down on May 15 in a pre-selected landing zone in the southern part of the Martian utopian plain, ahead of Beijing’s public announcement that it is aiming for the first manned Mars exploration in 2033. This is China’s first Mars exploration mission.
Chinese officials also revealed that before the start of manned exploration, China will also carry out robotic Mars exploration, Mars base site visits, in situ resource utilization system construction and other projects. There is also expected to be an unmanned round-trip mission to collect Mars soil samples by the end of 2030.
Why Washington is worried about Beijing’s space operations
Italian planetary scientist Roberto Orosei told Nature that China “did in one fell swoop what NASA has been doing for decades,” while U.S. astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said China’s decision to include in its The decision by China to include a rover on its first trip to Mars is “a very bold move.
Meanwhile, several U.S. media outlets have reported that China has surpassed the United States in space and aerospace, and that the United States may have to be concerned and wary of China’s bold moves in the space exploration arena.
Maj. Liane Zivitski, an active duty U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, said in an op-ed in Defense News back in June of last year that China is determined to supplant the United States as the dominant power in space. While declaring its peaceful intentions, Beijing’s norm is to view space as a military domain and is investing heavily in space infrastructure designed to ensure economic and military superiority.
Henry Hertzfeld, a professor at The George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., told the Voice of America that the United States certainly has reason to be concerned about China’s actions in space.
According to Hertzfeld, this is because of the obvious political and economic differences between the U.S. and China, and the competition and potential threat from China is real as its advanced space capabilities develop.
“Still, the U.S. also continues to make progress in space technology; the U.S. emphasizes the need for global cooperation in efforts to make the space environment sustainable for future use and to comply with international norms and standards,” Hertzfeld said.
Dr. Mir Sadat, who previously served as director of policy at the National Security Council, is responsible for interagency coordination on defense and space policy issues. Sadat also expressed concern about China’s recent space actions in a speech at The Institute of World Politics on Tuesday (June 29).
Sadat argued that the space competition between Washington and Beijing is not about the culture and political systems of the United States and China; it is about which country’s entrepreneurs and economy will benefit, and which country’s people will actually benefit. As a member of the global world, the United States wants all of humanity to benefit.
“Unfortunately, that’s not the way the Chinese see the world. They have their eyes fixed only on the interests of the Chinese, believing that China’s interests come before anyone else’s. Of course the U.S. has an entrepreneurial mindset, but the idea is to make everyone rich from it, not to try to hurt people,” Sadat said.
China’s Chang’e 5 landed on the moon in 2020 and brought back 1,731 grams of lunar soil samples. China had announced at the time that the samples would be used for three purposes: scientific research, public knowledge dissemination and sharing with scientists in other countries around the world.
Sadat also mentioned in his speech that there is currently a lot of discussion in the United States around the concern that what if China does not share its research with the rest of the world, as it claims to do?
“What if they drill for something on the moon and then they destroy some part of the moon? Who is responsible for that? What if they manage to keep other countries from extracting things from the moon as well? What if there’s a collision in space?” Sadat said.
Paul J. Saunders, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, told VOA that space systems are an integral part of U.S. national security integral part of U.S. national security because they provide early warning of missile launches as well as data on military communications and time and location; and this data is an integral part of modern, networked military power.
“With this in mind, the United States has no choice but to closely monitor and respond to the space capabilities of its competitors, including China and Russia, as needed,” Sanders said.
How does Washington respond?
Many in the United States are concerned that Beijing has an urge to dominate space and that the United States must take countermeasures to counter China’s aggressive momentum in the space sector. How should Washington respond? Should it compete or cooperate?
For foreign policy expert Sanders, unrestrained military competition in space or on Earth could be extremely dangerous. The United States should maintain open communication with China on space, land, naval and air military operations, as well as cyber activities.
Sanders argued that the United States and China and other countries have a common interest in developing mutually agreed-upon “rules of the road” and procedures to avoid miscalculations, misunderstandings and miscommunications.
“Nonetheless, the United States must also protect its vital national security interests in space as it does on land. This appears to require fierce competition with competitors, including China and Russia,” Sanders said.
For his part, George Washington University space policy professor Hertzfeld said Washington’s response to threats from Beijing in space should depend on Beijing’s actual threats to particular assets, not on Beijing’s potential advances and progress in space technology.
Beijing and Moscow join forces
Meanwhile, Russia and China unveiled a roadmap for a joint international lunar research station to guide Russian-Chinese cooperation and development in the field at the Global Space Exploration (GLEX) conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the middle of last month (June 16). And it said the plan has already attracted the interest of several countries and organizations.
A June 17 New York Times story said, “Geopolitical Rivalry Extends to Space: Russia and China Join Forces to Confront U.S.” Russia and China have begun to develop ambitious mission plans to compete directly with the United States and its partners, “ushering in a new era that could be as intense as the first space competition”.
Beijing and Moscow have joined forces to plan a robotic mission to an asteroid in 2024, according to the report. China and Russia will also collaborate on a series of lunar missions with the goal of establishing a permanent research base at the moon’s south pole by 2030.
According to space policy expert Hertzfeld, the current space competition between the United States and China and the joint Russian-Chinese space initiative will not lead to a space race like the one in the 1960s. The U.S. is continuing to develop the Gateway and Artemis programs and is working with other nations in these programs. There are many research and development possibilities on the Moon, and there is clearly potential for other international collaborative projects.
“But it doesn’t have to be one thing there, as it was in the 1960s: a space race; it can evolve into a variety of different missions with different research and development and peaceful goals; so that humanity can finally learn more about the moon and outer space,” Hertzfeld said.
“Sanders, a foreign policy expert at the Center for the National Interest, told VOA that while escalating competition appears to be weakening the foundation for space cooperation, “the United States should continue to offer peaceful cooperation in U.S. space activities to China and Russia, while questioning both Chinese and Russian space activities “
“Regardless of the actions of China and Russia, the United States has an interest in returning to the moon, sending manned spacecraft to Mars, and pursuing and exploring economic opportunities in space. Some of these activities are likely to occur naturally as the U.S. commercial space industry expands and grows,” he said.
Sanders also believes that in other areas, the U.S. government should, and likely will, support some key programs by working with U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, as well as other international partners.