China’s is extending its space program to other countries in ways that its superpower rival, the United States, finds hard to match and that stand to isolate the U.S. on earth, experts say.
The vehicle propelling Beijing’s international plans for space diplomacy, the Shenzhou-13, blasted off Friday with a crew of three onboard.
The spacecraft is the core module of China's space station and will stay in space for six months. State-run Xinhua News Agency said this journey begins the longest spaceflight ever for China. The crew will check all space station systems and help complete its construction by the end of next year.
The space station will become a “platform for deeper international cooperation” and “welcome” foreign astronauts, the Beijing-based China Daily news website said.
“My sense is that this is good PR for China,” said Marco Cáceres, director of space studies at the Teal Group market analysis firm. “Already, you see that there is a space race developing between the U.S. and China.”
China launched its first satellite in 1970 and put its first astronaut in space in 2003, becoming the world’s third nation, after Russia and the United States, to do so. U.S. officials, among others, worry that China is looking to space for military use and would need to get congressional approval for any Sino-American space cooperation.
Sino-foreign space cooperation
Experts say China’s outreach to other countries goes beyond PR. China builds high-end satellites for developing countries and shares satellite data to help with relief work after natural disasters.
In the 1990s, China and Brazil jointly developed remote sensing satellites, as Brazil was willing to share its technology then with China, said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
As of 2008, China has signed space-related cooperation agreements with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine and the European Commission, NASA said.
Last year, Chinese ally Pakistan became the first full military partner eligible to use Beijing’s BeiDou navigation satellite.
China offered remote sensing data to Japan after its 2011 tsunami and has given images to Australia for wildfire damage surveys, Sun said. Chinese satellites have provided free earth imagery to developing countries, she added.
“It sounds like the data collected by these satellites are quite a popular or needed data for many countries,” Sun said. “So, for developing countries who don’t have the access to commercial satellites or information to be shared by Western countries, then China provides a useful alternative.”
Russia and China tentatively agreed in September to open a joint lunar research base, making both sides more influential.
China also sells launch services abroad, said Richard Bitzinger, a U.S.-based visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. China is reliable, open to sharing technology and positioned to “undercut the competition,” he said.
Bitzinger said partner nations might see joint space exploitation as a “logical next step.”
“I think more than anything, what they’re trying to say is, ‘We’re the low-budget provider. We’re the no-questions-asked guy. We’re happy to treat you more as equals than maybe the United States might’,” Bitzinger said. “For a lot of countries, there just isn’t really a political or strategic downside in dealing with the Chinese in these areas.”
Cooperation has already begun between China and “some other countries” for selection and training of astronauts, China Daily said October 16. The newspaper said the China Manned Space Agency is working with the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs to invite certain U.N. members for scientific experiments at the Tianhe space station module.
The Chinese space station is likely to do “thousands of experiments” in micro-gravity and could accept countries unable to reach the international space station, Cáceres said.
“When China invites other countries to its own space station, then of course China will be the leader. So, it demonstrates China’s leadership willingness, as well as leadership capability and high-tech capabilities, to show that China can rival even the United States and Russia and the European Union — all of the most advanced industrial countries,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Hawaii.
Chance to exceed the United States
U.S. space programs are less “active” than China in helping poorer countries, Cáceres said, and its inactivity could be “hurt” as China shares outer space with other governments.
Developing countries normally want the cheapest launch and satellite services, Bitzinger said. While they might prefer the quality of an American product, they could more likely afford one from China. That means the United Stated could “lose an advantage.”
A 2011 U.S. law bars NASA from using its funds to engage the Chinese government and affiliated organizations without congressional and FBI approval. Washington believes Beijing to be “extremely aggressive in space,” Cáceres said.
Washington’s role in the International Space Station has put its 60-year-old space program in contact with agencies from Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. In 2013, the government removed satellite technology from a list of export-controlled items to help manufacturers compete overseas. But the United States prioritizes space competition less now than during the Cold War, Vuving said.
NASA did not answer a request for comment.