By Yasuhito Fukushima, researcher at the National Institute for Defense Studies
China is trying to rise to the status of a superpower on par with the U.S. by the 2040s. The use of space is an important element that constitutes China’s comprehensive national strength and is a means for achieving not only military objectives but also diplomatic and economic objectives.
The space station that China is aiming to complete by 2022 will provide other countries with opportunities to conduct scientific experiments and manned space activities. This will give the world the impression that China has become another core participant in international space cooperation.
China also emphasizes the economic effects. The country has vowed to build the “Space Information Corridor” to promote its “Belt and Road” Eurasian economic bloc initiative, and aims to strengthen connections with relevant countries by providing weather observation, communications, and positioning services through the BeiDou navigation satellite system. There are expectations that communications devices using the BeiDou will become widely used and related industries will grow.
It is noteworthy that space-related startups are rapidly boosting their presence in China. The government has been encouraging private capital to enter the space industry since 2014. Small satellite-launching rocket developers and communications service providers using hundreds of small communications satellites are emerging one after another.
The relations between the U.S. and China over space are different from those between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. The U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a certain level of cooperation, including signing an arms control treaty under which they utilized each other’s spy satellites for verification and docking of spaceships. The U.S. and China do not have such relations now. Concerns about China’s technology theft are intensifying in the U.S. and little progress is being made in civilian cooperation.
Still, cooperation with China is indispensable for the stable utilization of space. If space debris is generated, it could affect all satellites operating in similar orbits. This is why the U.S. currently notifies China of any artificial objects approaching Chinese satellites. If China operates more satellites, cooperation will be indispensable to avoid collisions and radio wave interference.