China, Russia teaming up against U.S. in space

Koki Kataoka / The Yomiuri Shimbun
People watch a rocket carrying a module for China’s space station blast off from Wenchang in China’s Hainan Province on April 29.

SHENYANG, China / WASHINGTON — U.S. wrangling with China and Russia in international politics is now reaching the last frontier: space.

The battle for dominance in outer space is evolving as China continues its relentless pursuit of the United States. On top of this, Russia has started working more closely with China, cooling off its cooperation with the United States in the joint operation of the International Space Station.

Soon after China successfully launched a rocket carrying the Tianhe core module for its Tiangong space station on April 29, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent congratulations and urged the acceleration of space development. Xi said completing construction of the space station and a national space laboratory is an “important project” leading to China becoming a major space power.

China will also launch lab modules and cargo spacecraft, with plans to finish assembling the space station by the end of 2022. This will provide China with a foothold to conduct manned space activities on par with those done at the ISS.

Academic institutions and other entities from 17 nations, including Japan and European countries, will participate in experiments and observations at the Chinese space station. Completing the space station will be hugely significant for the Xi administration, which aims to become a space power in the same league as the United States.

‘New space race’

China’s list of achievements in space is growing as it is determined to catch up to the United States. In January 2019, China became the first nation to successfully land an unmanned rover on the far side of the moon. In June 2020, China completed BeiDou, its own satellite-based navigation and positioning system to rival America’s GPS.

While Washington and Beijing jostle for space dominance, Moscow also has been flexing its muscles and siding with its neighbor in this field.

In mid-April, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said on a TV program that Russia would withdraw from the ISS “starting in 2025” for reasons such as the aging of the structure, suggesting Russia could pull the plug on many years of cooperation in space with the United States.

In March, Russia and China had signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly construct a lunar base for exploring the moon. It is possible that Moscow will press Beijing to provide financial support in exchange for the provision of space development technologies and experience built up over the decades.

Some U.S. media outlets have even stated that a “new space race” is starting.

In the 1950s, China launched its “two bombs, one satellite” project to develop a nuclear weapon, intercontinental ballistic missile and an artificial satellite. Since then, its military-led space development has made great strides. The same is true for Russia.

In 2007, China successfully carried out its first test of an anti-satellite missile. Some observers have warned that the China’s Beidou satellite navigation system could also be diverted to military use.

This April, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed strong concerns about China’s space development. The Chinese military, it said in its Annual Threat Assessment, “will continue to integrate space services — such as satellite reconnaissance and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) — and satellite communications into its weapons and command-and-control systems to erode the U.S. military’s information advantage.”

A diplomatic source told The Yomiuri Shimbun it was possible that the technologies and knowledge acquired over many years of operating the ISS “could make their way to China via Russia.”

Washington frets

NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program to send astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2024 is a clear sign the United States is fretting that its leadership in space could be in jeopardy. Former U.S. President Donald Trump insisted, “We are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader.”

Trump chose human spaceflight to the moon, into which China also has poured vast resources. The United States also plans to send the first crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s.

In October 2020, Japan, European nations and other countries agreed on international rules covering issues in space including the use of resources extracted during lunar exploration. This was partly to curb any future Chinese moves on the moon’s surface. U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been stepping up pressure on China and Russia through U.S. allies and friends in the diplomatic and security fields, plans to continue this approach.

Russia, in addition to pulling out of the ISS, also has revealed it is considering constructing its own space station. For Moscow, space development has been a way to display national strength to Washington ever since the days of the Soviet Union. As well as making its presence felt, it seems Russia recognizes a potential threat from its neighbor China and wants to preserve its solid position in space.

The online edition of the Global Times, a daily newspaper under the umbrella of the Communist Party of China, carried an editorial lauding the successful April 29 launch of the space station module. The paper added, “Of course, compared with the U.S. and Russia, China still lags behind.”

Many observers believe competition among the United States, China and Russia will grow even more complex in the years ahead.