A Long March-7 Y3 carrier rocket carrying the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft takes off from the Wenchang spacecraft launch site on May 29, 2021 in Wenchang, China’s Hainan Province.
Yuan Chen | VCG | fake images
GUANGZHOU, China – In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which sparked a space race with the United States.
China, however, was nowhere to be seen.
As the United States and the Soviet Union fought for superiority in this new domain, Mao Zedong, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reportedly said: “China cannot even put a potato in space.”
Fast-forward more than six decades and you see President Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, congratulating three astronauts who were sent to the country’s own space station earlier this month.
Since Mao’s comments, China has launched satellites, sent humans into space, and now plans to build a base on Mars, achievements and ambitions that Beijing has highlighted as the centenary of the CCP’s founding approaches.
Space is now another battleground between the United States and China amid a broader technological rivalry for supremacy, one that could have scientific and military implications on Earth.
“President Xi Jinping has declared that China’s ‘space dream’ will overtake all nations and become the leading space power by 2045,” said Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at the University of Northumbria in the United Kingdom. . “All of this fuels China’s ambition to be the world’s only scientific and technological superpower.”
Why the space?
In March, China singled out space as a “frontier technology” on which it would focus and investigate the “origin and evolution of the universe.”
But there are other implications as well.
“It is important for China and the United States because it can promote technological development” in areas such as “national security and some socio-economic development,” according to Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute for Space Law and Policy, and researcher Christoph Beischl.
While experts doubt that it can turn into a war in space, extraterrestrial activities can support military operations on Earth.
Space achievements also have to do with optics.
Through space exploration to the Moon or Mars, “China and the United States show their technological sophistication to the national audience and to the world, increasing their national and international prestige, national legitimacy and international influence,” said Mosteshar and Beischl.
China’s space ambitions
Beijing has now turned its gaze to Mars. China hopes to send its first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033 after landing a spacecraft there in May.
China has been much more aggressive in recent years in applying for patents related to space technologies as it prepares for some of these future missions.
Between January 2000 and June 2021, Chinese entities filed 6,634 patents related to space travel, including vehicles and equipment, according to data compiled for CNBC by GreyB, a patent research firm. But nearly 90% of those patent applications were filed in the last five and a half years.
Between January 2016 and June 2021, the top three patent applications came from Chinese entities, followed by US aircraft manufacturer Boeing. It highlights how quickly China hopes to develop the technologies necessary for more advanced spaceflight.
Patents are seen as a way to help define and control standards for next-generation technologies, a goal for China in many different sectors, including telecommunications to artificial intelligence.
“These patents not only signify the level of innovation in China in relation to space, but also a well thought out strategy to protect these innovations and gain an economic advantage for its space-related technology,” said Vikas Jha, assistant vice president of solutions. of intellectual property. at GreyB.
“In the near future, most patents in cosmonautics will be owned by China (unless others follow suit), which means that China can become a guardian of the use of space technology for both private actors and the governments. This is in line with the Chinese strategy of becoming a superpower not only on Earth, but also in space ”.
Space tensions between the United States and China
The United States and China already battle for dominance in areas ranging from semiconductor development to artificial intelligence. Space will be another frontier, even if the United States dominates in that area for now.
“The United States is generally pushing ahead in all areas of space capability, but China is rapidly closing that lead,” Scott Pace, director of the Institute for Space Policy at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told CNBC.
“The United States has a strong policy for space exploration, a clear direction, and capable allies and partners,” he said. “The challenge for the United States is not so much what China does, but how well and how quickly the United States implements its own plans.”
But the widening of the political differences between China and the United States can also extend to the space realm.
One example is a disagreement last year between the two nations over the so-called Artemis Accords, an agreement led by NASA that seeks to create rules around responsible and fair space exploration. Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom signed up. China did not.
“The polarization of space activity throughout the geopolitical pause is a key and possibly existential threat to human space activity,” said Newman of Northumbria University.
“For China and its allies, the Accords represent an attempt to bypass the traditional forum for international decision-making,” he added.
“Therefore, it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve the kind of unified agreements that are necessary to deal with problems such as space debris, the management of space traffic and the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources.”