Most geopolitical analysis is pretty down to Earth. But don’t forget to look up: China’s influence is rocketing above the heavens.
On July 23, a Long March 5 rocket blasted off from the Wenchen Launch Center on China’s Hainan Island. Equipped with a lander, an orbiter and a rover, the Chinese Tianwen-1 spacecraft has set course for Mars to begin a comprehensive survey of the Red Planet.
The Mars mission, however, is not solely about discovery. It forms part of a comprehensive strategy designed to propel China to the ranks of “fully developed, rich and powerful” nations by the year 2049.
As President Xi Jinping explained to Taikonauts aboard the Tiangong-1, China’s first prototype space station back in 2013, “the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger.” Xi’s China is no longer “hiding capabilities and keeping a low profile,” it’s “striving for achievement,” he said at the time.
Under Xi’s command, the People’s Republic has launched two prototype space stations (Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2), as well as a cargo ship (Tianzhou) able to refuel other spacecraft.
In 2018, it fired more rockets into the cosmos than any other nation. A year later, China made history when the Chang’e 4 successfully landed the first rover on the dark side of the Moon.
Closer to home, the BeiDou 2 navigation system recently launched its 35th satellite, completing its sprawling constellation that promises to provide global coverage as an alternative to America’s GPS and Europe’s Galileo Positioning System.
If Tianwen-1 successfully reaches Mars, China will join the US and former Soviet Union as the only nations to have achieved such a space feat.
Unlike NASA and other space agencies whose stated goals are to conduct space exploration for the advancement of science, China’s space program is more concerned with economic gains, geostrategic positioning and supporting development goals.
By 2040, the space industry is forecast to be worth $2.7 trillion, according to a recent report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. China clearly plans to capitalize on this projection.
While the most significant short- and medium-term opportunities may come from satellite broadband internet access, the future is poised to see space mining emerge as a profitable industry.
A small asteroid roughly 200 meters in length that is rich in platinum could fetch up to $30 billion, one projection estimates. The Moon possesses hundreds of billions of dollars worth of untapped resources including helium-3, titanium, and other rare earth metals.
Chinese researchers like Lin Mingtao are already working under the National Space Science Center to capture a near-Earth asteroid and bring it back to China to inspect and extract its resources.
Beijing also has big plans for the Moon. According to state news agency Xinhua, The China National Space Administration (CNAS) intends to establish a research station on the lunar surface within the next decade.
If China succeeds in building a Moon base with industrial capacity, it could significantly lower the costs of launching spacecraft and serve as a gateway for future space exploration.
But China’s space ambitions don’t stop there. By 2022, China aims to have a fully operational space station orbiting Earth.
There are also plans to launch a variety of solar power plants into low-Earth orbit engineered to beam electricity back to China. Beijing is also working to develop nuclear-powered spaceships by 2040, which will conceivably enable deep space travel.
All told, China is building a Space Silk Road. Within the framework of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) this new cosmic corridor complements its earthly Maritime and Land Silk Roads.
As this galactic architecture takes form, Beijing intends to offer the international community an alternate credible infrastructure network, thereby competing for global leadership in space.
At the same time, the space program is also intertwined with “Made in China 2025,” a policy designed to catapult China to becoming a global leader in high-tech manufacturing.
The Space Silk Road provide a new pathway to enhance China’s indigenous innovation capabilities in fields like quantum communications, robotics, artificial intelligence, and aviation.
Accordingly, it also promotes civil-military fusion and the development of dual-use technologies: For example, while BeiDou can help navigate a ship through stormy waters, it can also guide a missile.
“In modern warfare, space capability can help attain a geopolitical edge, military competitiveness and technological development,” said Michael Raska, assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. China is seeking all three as it embarks on the journey to “great space power” status, he said to regional media.
Ye Peijian, the head of the Chinese lunar exploration program, has provided some insight as to how China’s Communist Party views space.
“The universe is an ocean, the Moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants,” Ye told reporters in 2017.
“If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”