Will China Blast Past America In Space?

In this month’s Foreign Policy, John Hickman contemplates a Chinese annexation of the moon

You might be asking: Why on God’s green Earth would Beijing want to colonize the moon? The crazy thing is that, if one analyzes China’s interests and the relevant international law, the Chinese moon scenario seems not only plausible but smart.

China is what international relations scholars call a “revisionist power,” seeking opportunities to assert its enhanced relative position in international affairs. Establishing territorial sovereignty on the moon would be an especially powerful statement about China’s arrival as a great power.

[…] Would a Chinese moon claim even be legal? At the moment, no, but international law would provide only the flimsiest of barriers. Although the 1967 space treaty asserts common ownership of the entire universe beyond Earth’s atmosphere, it also permits signatory states to withdraw from its terms with only a year’s notice. And there’s no law governing whether you can fly a rocket to the moon and land a ship there.

This spaceship has already sailed, according to Beijing’s deeply unofficial ambassador to Twitter:

PLA Second Artillery colonel Shao Yongling, on the other hand, put the article down to “sour grapes” growing amid the abandoned ruins of America’s own lunar exploration. (“One expects her to deny China’s desire to control the moon,” writes Foreign Policy‘s Isaac Stone Fish, “but she never does.”) The different trajectories of the Chinese and American space programmes were also the topic of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, with guests Jonathan McDowell and Joan Johnson-Freese.

Johnson-Freese points out that China is still catching up with the US and USSR of the 1960s. But with its own fully-fledged space station planned for the 2020s and the International Space Station scheduled to retire during the same period, the balance may shift dramatically over the next twenty years.

[IRA] FLATOW: How is this going to sit with – let’s say you look at Congress 10 years now. If the Chinese have a space station, the U.S. no longer is orbiting in the space station, it’s not invited to go to a Chinese space station, let’s say, or is not allowed to have anything to do with the Chinese space program, are we going to see, do you suspect, some reversal in Congress saying where the heck are we, why were we left out of these things?

JOHNSON-FREESE: I think you’re exactly right. I think there will be a loud cry of how did this happen. But you already see members of Congress try to use the Chinese space program as an impetus to get more money for the U.S. space effort, but it’s very difficult to do manned spaceflight in a democracy because while we all like spaceflight, we like watching it, when it comes to funding from government funds, it simply doesn’t get the priority that things like jobs and roads and education and defense gets.

In China, they have an authoritarian government that can keep funding it to whatever level they choose, as long as they choose to do it, and they will do that as long as they get successful results from it.

The three also discuss the “major opportunities” lost because of the US Congress’s barriers to co-operation with China. Asian-American astronaut Leroy Chiao also argued last year that this policy should be discarded, and that China should be invited aboard the International Space Station.

June 26, 2012 11:41 PM
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