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NASA Engaging China

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 29, 2010

    China’s space programme is in the news again. On October 1, 2010, the 61st Anniversary of the establishment of PRC rule, China launched an unmanned lunar probe, Chang'e-2. This was part of the project to send a human being to the moon around 2020, from a launch site in Sichuan, a very special way to mark the anniversary. China has also announced that it plans to complete a manned space station by 2020.

    Within two weeks of the successful launch, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visited Beijing on October 16 – 21 - to discuss the potential of cooperation in the area of human spaceflight. Afterwards, Bolden stated that the visit had helped the two sides “reach a common understanding of the importance of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit as the underlying principles of any future interaction” in the area of space flight. The visit had been planned during President Obama’s visit to China.

    China’s space programme is being viewed by many as an attempt to counter U.S. hegemony in this arena. It is believed that Beijing realized the importance of space during the Gulf War of 1991. This was when the United States showcased the level of competence it had in space and how well it could use this to mobilize troops on the ground. It is also perceived that the 2007 ASAT test was conducted in order to prevent United States from having an asymmetrical advantage vis-à-vis space. On the other hand, the United States also withdrew from the ABM treaty, which gave the impression that they were not keen on having any kind of treaty binding them when it came to the weaponization of space. Both the United States and Russia have shown reluctance when it comes to the Outer Space Treaty.

    The relationship between China and the United States has been marked by unease and mistrust. United States has been concerned about the nature of China’s rise and has also been debating the military consequences of such relentless growth.

    Thus Bolden’s visit elicited mixed reactions from various quarters within the United States. Some perceived this as a signal that China was becoming more open, while others reacted negatively, as Chinese space programmes have been marked with inordinate secrecy. As is the case with nuclear energy today space technologies will define the power dynamics in the coming decades. United States has the most advanced space technologies and sharing of information and joint operations will definitely help China in its space programme.

    A factor behind this visit could be the fact that the United States space programme has been under a lot of financial stress. President Obama has declared that he will be cutting the NASA budget and this has had a negative impact on future space programmes. This is true for other space agencies around the world as well. They have always been questioned on the benefits derived from indulgence in such expensive ventures.

    Apart from United States, only Russia and China have the capability to put a human in space and the Chinese space programme has been functioning quite smoothly. Does the United States want to enter into some kind of cooperation in order to keep its own programmes alive and its options open for future use of its space station? After the scheduled launch of shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station (ISS) NASA will be dependent on other nations to keep the ISS functional.

    Relations between United States and China have been rough for sometime now and only time will tell whether any kind of cooperation will occur or not. If Beijing decides to cooperate with Washington then the positive outcome will be that one may witness more transparent behaviour from China.