Doubts cannot be dispelled about claims of promoting ‘peaceful use’

China has continued to “change the status quo by force” and has increased military threats against neighboring regions, including Taiwan.

Despite such behavior, Beijing has stressed that it will promote international cooperation and the peaceful use of space. Doubts cannot be dispelled.

China’s space station Tiangong has begun full-fledged operations. A spacecraft carrying three astronauts successfully docked at the station. The Tiangong is smaller than the International Space Station jointly operated by space agencies including those of Japan, the United States, Europe and Russia. A total of six astronauts are staying on the Chinese station.

China launched its manned space project in 1992, about 30 years later than the United States and the Soviet Union. Given that, Beijing’s progress in such a short period of time is astounding. At the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping called for accelerating efforts to make the country a “space power,” and the station will likely be a pillar of such efforts.

Beijing has emphasized that the facility will be a “space home for all mankind,” claiming it will be open to all countries. Seventeen countries, including Germany and Italy, reportedly will participate in missions on the space station and conduct scientific experiments and other projects there. It can be said that this indicates China’s growing influence in space exploration.

Completed in 2011, the ISS, where Japan, the United States, Europe and Russia conduct activities, is aging, and its future is uncertain beyond 2024. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to extend the operation of the ISS to 2030, but Russia, which has become increasingly isolated due to its invasion of Ukraine, has hinted it will withdraw from the project.

China must see this situation as an opportunity to increase the value of its own station. The question is whether the country intends to abide by the principles of equality, mutual benefit and peaceful use of space that it claims to uphold.

China’s national defense law describes outer space as a “critical security area” and states that the nation will take necessary measures to protect the safety of its activities in space. This stance indicates that Beijing regards space as something akin to territory or territorial waters over which it believes it can claim rights or interests.

Such thinking is contrary to the spirit of the international treaty that prohibits countries from claiming ownership of outer space and celestial bodies and using them for military purposes. The treaty was established more than 50 years ago, and China has joined it. It is unacceptable to ignore the treaty and partition space unilaterally.

Every country has the right to participate in space exploration. In China’s case, the problem is that military and peaceful uses of space are inextricably linked. The country has conducted tests aimed at destroying other countries’ satellites, posing a major threat.

If China intends to promote international cooperation in space, it must increase the transparency of its activities. It should also actively join efforts to create international rules on space activities, which Japan and the United States are promoting.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 9, 2022)