Mission completed. The safe return to Earth of astronaut Yang Liwei yesterday, bringing China's first manned space flight to a successful conclusion, is an occasion for celebration. The flight was a scientific and technological accomplishment but it was also a great human achievement. Lieutenant-Colonel Yang's emergence from the landing module - tired but triumphant - ensured a happy ending to the historic 600,000km trip. Our first thoughts are for Colonel Yang. As China's first man in space, the PLA fighter pilot has suddenly become a hero. It is what he had trained for, and hoped for. But the dangers inherent in manned space flight should not be forgotten. Colonel Yang's call to his wife and eight-year-old son while orbiting the Earth provided a poignant reminder that a human life, as well as the hopes of a nation, was at stake. Now that he is safe, the mission prompts reflection on China's new status as a leading player in the field of space exploration. It also fuels hopes that the world might be on the verge of a new era in international co-operation in space. But co-operation takes more than one party and fulfilment of this hope is not only in China's hands. Some commentators have been quick to point out the mission could launch a new space race to rival that of the United States and Soviet Union 40 years ago. But that need not be the case. International co-operation has become the key to modern space exploration. And it is time for China to play a greater role. The architects of the Shenzhou V flight laid out their ambitious plans for the future yesterday. They said another launch was likely within the next two years. Moon walks, crew exchanges, docking operations and eventually the building of a space station and space lab are all on the list. Anything, it seems, is possible now that the long-held ambition to become a space-faring nation has been realised. We can expect the goals of the space programme to be pursued energetically. Some analysts are even predicting another manned operation as early as March - and up to six flights a year in future. GENUINE ACCLAIM But the nature of space exploration is such that China's success is viewed with both admiration and suspicion by other nations. This week's achievement has been greeted with wide acclaim. The United Nations secretary-general described it as a step forward for all humankind, while the head of Nasa in the US hailed the flight as an important achievement. The praise was glowing and, no doubt, genuine. But some see China's emergence as a world power with the potential to stake a claim in space as a threat. The US, with a military that relies heavily on space technology, is keeping a wary eye on China's programme, although it did hand over information to help make sure the Shenzhou V did not collide with any of its satellites. Japan and India have ambitions of their own. Tokyo launched an unmanned orbiter to Mars in 1998 and sent its first spy satellite into space earlier this year. But it has no manned space programme. India, like China, is working towards sending a man to the moon. The risk of a space race appears all too real. But some of the most encouraging reaction to the Shenzhou V mission came from those calling for China to play a larger role in international space exploration projects. The director-general of the European Space Agency spoke of 'a new era of enlarged co-operation within the world space community'. This should be the way ahead and the most obvious means of achieving it is through the International Space Station project. BASE IN SPACE Spearheaded by the US and Russia, this project has the support of 16 nations and provides a permanent base in space. It was launched in 1998 and has been manned since November 2000, providing the platform for a wide range of scientific and commercial experiments. Astronauts scheduled to take off for a trip to the station on Saturday were among those calling for China to become involved. It would have much to offer. The project has suffered as a result of the Columbia disaster earlier this year, with much reliance now placed on Russia. China could provide great assistance, particularly in providing a 'lifeboat' in case of emergencies. But the US opposition has, so far, blocked China from joining the club. It is time for this situation to be resolved. The US must learn to place greater trust in China, as it has in Russia. In turn, China could help by taking steps to remove its space exploration programme from the control of the military and by trying to convince the US it need not worry about the transfer of technology to states such as North Korea. The idea of US-China co-operation may seem as ambitious as their respective space programmes. But forcing China to go it alone in space does not serve the world's best interests. The national flag was not the only one Colonel Yang waved during his historic flight: the UN was given equal billing in a symbolic gesture. If China's manned space flight mission paves the way for it to work alongside the world's other space-faring nations, the achievement will be all the more significant.