- The launch of Tiānhé and ongoing assembly of a modular space station by China represents the culmination of a decade-long marathon initiated in 1992.
- The current mythmaking about China’s intention to challenge the US space leadership with a new space (arms) race is fuelling a self-propelling mechanism that will lead to confrontation if nothing is done. To this end, it is high time for the West to engage China in meaningful cooperation mechanisms.
- There will only be a few possibilities of stemming the confrontational dynamics in the field of human space exploration, especially if China and Russia will seize the opportunity of a bilateral partnership. The ensuing antagonism will reverberate in other space issue-areas, compromising the security and strategic stability of space, and will have detrimental effects on peacebuilding on Earth.
On 29 April 2021, a Chinese Long March 5B rocket successfully launched the core module of China’s upcoming space station. Named Tiānhé (Harmony of the Heavens), the module will provide guidance, navigation and control for the entire station as well as the life support systems and living areas for the next crew of taikonauts that will return to orbit in June.
Hailed as a remarkable achievement from both a technological and geopolitical perspective, this latest Chinese feat does not come as a surprise for the international space community, being the culmination of an ambitious programme that dates back to the early 1990s.
The media hype that has followed is not a surprise either. As with any recent Chinese accomplishment in the field of space exploration and human spaceflight, the deployment of Tiānhé has been generating global media excitement and the predictable speculation about the real intentions of China’s space endeavours.
Time and again, headlines signal that China’s strides in space are mostly informed by prestige considerations. Time and again, narratives about the emergence of a new space race surface in policy analysis. And time and again, warnings are voiced about China’s underlying ambition to not only catch up with, but even surpass the US in space and ultimately to directly challenge American leadership with a new space (arms) race.
Prestige considerations are certainly at play for China; and certainly China wants to see US power, be it in space or elsewhere, constrained. But no matter how tempting and potentially useful these narratives may be – at least for some constituents in military-industrial complexes around the world – they also prove visibly simplistic and deceiving. At least three modifiers must be put forward.
First, an analysis of the broader dynamics surrounding the country’s space endeavours reveals that the pursuit of prestige is primarily targeted at shaping perceptions among the Chinese people, rather than the international community; hence the support of domestic political goals is at stake more than international ones. It was President Hu Jintao himself who, back in 2005, publicly recognised the importance of promoting the virtues of spaceflight across society in order to increase national pride, consolidate Chinese peoples’ identity and reinforce national solidarity.
This aim can be seen in the well-thought-out integration of China’s space ambitions with its cultural grandiosity elements and the omnipresent tenet of the national great rejuvenation (fùxīng). Given that in China cultural roots inform nationalism more than any ethnic, religious or ideological element, consistent efforts have been devoted to associate national space achievements with China’s glorious past and to make them an integral part of the dream of Chinese revival (zhōngguó mèng). The self-reinforcing pattern of this approach has been remarkable and effective: the rejuvenation motif has helped the spirit of space endeavours to permeate society, while space endeavours provide concrete pieces of evidence about the long-awaited fulfilment of this collective dream, as well as a crucial validator of China’s ruling party and its legitimacy to govern; in short, its celestial mandate (tiānmìng).
Second, a look at the evolution of China’s human spaceflight programme shows that it has been engaged in a marathon rather than a sprint – with no hurry to achieve any of the goals by a specific deadline or before other countries. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the objective to construct a modular space station in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) was officially put forward in 1992, while the much-feared prospect of a taikonaut’s moon landing has been under consideration since the early 2000s. This cautious, incremental pace of development has been determined as the best approach for a leadership that always tends to play the long game and has a low tolerance for failure.
A third, and perhaps more important consideration is that, unlike the two original antagonists in the space race, China has never shown interest in an open competition, nor has its underlying purpose been that of using space to prove its techno-nationalist superiority over a declared opponent. Space achievements have rather been seen as a marker and indicator of China’s entitlement to get a seat at the top table of space powers, something that neither Russia nor the US have been eager to concede. In this respect, it merits note that Chinese space officials have, on more than one occasion, highlighted that the country would not need to construct its own space station, were it allowed to become a partner in the International Space Station (ISS). More than the intention to compete with the US, this posture unveils the quest for membership, respect, and equality in the global space community – not a desire for competition or imperial isolation.
That China has no interest in an open competition but rather seeks to instrumentalise international cooperation – also as a means to indirectly constrain US space leadership – is demonstrated well by the symbolic decision to open up the upcoming space station to all interested countries, including spacefaring and developing ones. More specifically, since 2014 Chinese authorities have announced opportunities to conduct joint experiments onboard Tiangong, joint manned missions, and even the docking of foreign modules; all tools that are aptly leveraged to create the image of a benevolent space power and differentiate its posture in space from that of a US that preferred keeping the ISS as a closed club. Quite ironically, such overtures support the argument that Chinese leaders want to use – and cleverly present – their human spaceflight programme as the antithesis of a space race: instead of being an arena of competition, the programme’s stated intent is to be a catalyst for international cooperation.
All this means that a foundation exists that would allow an attempt to reverse current competition trends. It requires, of course, that the US abandons its rigid defence of a status quo that cannot be preserved. It is also true, however, that formal assurances are not, on their own, sufficient to dispel perceptions of China as a threat. Quite to the contrary. Irrespective of China’s declared interest in avoiding a space race or a strategic arms race, the mere expansion of its space ambitions has already induced the US to react, triggering mutually-reinforcing behaviour that may lead to confrontation. The most immediate result may well be that in 2022 the world will have a most poignant illustration of division, China and friends operating one station and the US and partners operating another. No astronaut will set foot on the Chinese station and no taikonaut will be welcomed on the ISS. With Russia’s decision to leave the ISS consortium in 2025, we may, however, also see cosmonauts shaking hands with taikonauts at the Chinese station. Such a possible realignment of partners should give the US pause – whether it really wants to go down the path of competition with a still giant, Russia, and an up-and-coming giant, China.
An even more dramatic illustration of antagonism will arise if the still embryonic wave of human lunar exploration will eventually freeze around two separate highways, to echo the perspective of former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Whilst China has not yet formalised the plan to conduct a human lunar landing in any official document, its determination to use space to build geopolitical capital seems to have already incentivised the US to pursue its own space exploration programme more energetically as a way to anticipate and eclipse a Chinese lunar endeavour. It is not clear whether the alleged Chinese plans to land a real Cháng’é (i.e. a female astronaut) on the Moon have informed a similar objective by the Artemis programme, but the envisaged timeframe and goals do not seem accidental.
Artemis vs. Chang’e – an almost ontological representation of a civilisational cleavage – will then become the inevitable product of the current narratives and power logics.
This is not an appealing scenario for the US and friends by any means, with even less appeal should Russia become China’s partner in a Moon endeavour. Indeed, the agreement reached in March 2021 between the China National Space Administration and Roscosmos State Corporation for the joint construction of an outpost on the lunar surface, signal the emergence of the two conflicting pathways for human lunar exploration. Although Artemis was opened to international partners, including Russia, the fact that the US still views cooperation in terms of other partners’ acceptance of a programme conceived, planned and directed by NASA, makes it unacceptable for Russia to join. Hence the decision to partner with China.
In both the space and political arenas, a strong Sino-Russian partnership would clearly not be in the interest of the US and the West and its avoidance should indeed be one of the key drivers to guide the grand strategy of the new US administration.
From an ‘Astropolitik’ perspective, should Russia and China push forward a bilateral partnership in the field of human space exploration —as recent agreement seems to be suggesting—the re-emergence of a space race mind-set would become inexorable. The ensuing antagonism would then reverberate in other space issue-areas, with far reaching impacts on the security and stability of space activities. Mistrust, misperceptions and the risk of mishaps will increase and eventually undermine the ultimate goal of maintaining strategic stability in outer space.
From a more down to Earth political perspective in the truest sense, Sino–Russian cooperation in space exploration could become an additional tile reinforcing the gradual convergence between Moscow and Beijing in world affairs. Even though the Sino–Russian strategic partnership still appears to be little more than an “friendship of convenience” rather than a genuine partnership, an ambitious joint project in a highly visible and symbolic domain like space could certainly contribute to reinforcing the alignment. Such an alignment, however, would have ominous geopolitical implications.
To put it in the crude structural terms of the Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong, should China make a formal alliance with Russia, it will change the currently “unravelling” – yet still dominant – unipolar structure of the international system into a new bipolar world order. The much-discussed projections made in 2007 by Robert Kagan about the emergence of an association of autocracies (composed of China, Russia, and possibly Iran) versus an axis of democracies (composed of the USA, Europe, Japan, and India) would eventually become the new reality to contend with. In fact, Kagan’s thought might be too optimistic . There would be instability in both blocs, and hence some degree of hard-to-manage multipolarity might be the end result.
Against this threatening backdrop, any cool-headed Metternich will conclude that a space confrontation should be avoided if possible. Any cool-headed Metternich would, in the first instance, look at the invitation by China to cooperate on the space stations as an opportunity that must be pursued, uncomfortable as a partnership with China might be. Perhaps such cooperation will fail, but the reality is that all alternatives to cooperation in space exploration will yield a worse outcome for all, including for China.
It is often the task of statesmanship to navigate unappealing alternatives. 1914 showed what happens when it is absent. But also, the greatest failure of politics is when it fails to even try to achieve the best results. Again, 1914 serves as a warning. Yet, for all the determination of the Biden administration to seek new beginnings and show statesmanship, it is predictable that human exploration of outer space will not appear as a priority, and that cooperation in this domain will not be understood as a possible avenue for starting to reset the relationship with China.
The existential question is then how American myopia can be overcome. The most auspicious route is surely for Europe and Canada, America’s oldest and closest friends, to impress upon all parties that the human exploration of outer space can evolve into a no-win or a win-win situation. And Europe and Canada can engage more closely with China in the human exploration of outer space, thus rejecting the role assigned to them by the US.
We are at an inflection point in international (space) relations. Let us seek to make the launch of Tiānhé the catalyst for a new space era in which the mutual hedging and zero-summing of the first space race will make room for mutual respect and turn the satisfaction of curiosity into a task for a united humanity.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, The London School of Economics and Political Science, or ESPI.