US’ lack of space cooperation with China is dangerous and counterproductive
- Chinese space progress, quite understandably, poses an existential challenge to the US
- But with the amount of space traffic and debris orbiting Earth, Washington’s decision to lock Beijing out of a space agreement is a route to future conflict
In 1957, when Russia shocked the world with the launch of its first Sputnik satellite, Mao Zedong is said to have lamented that China could not even get a potato into space.
One can understand why the United States, for so long the world’s paramount space power, feels that China’s space dream amounts to an existential challenge, and one of a growing list of reasons that underpin an urge to block China’s relentless rise and its access to the latest technologies.
Given the inherently dual-use nature of all space technology, there is little work done in space research and exploration that might not be perceived as a defence threat.
China’s very conspicuous space progress coincides with – and contributes to – rising anxiety about the potential for controversy, conflict and accidents in space.
While space activity was, not so many decades ago, seen as the remote and exotic subject of science fiction writers, it has today assumed practical relevance with the potential to profoundly impact our daily lives.
The Space Foundation’s Space Report 2021 talks of space research as a vital enabler at the heart of progress in energy generation, security, meteorology, aviation, telecoms, maritime activity, transport and urban development.
Of the US$447 billion spent on space in 2020, the lion’s share (US$357 billion) was spent not by the military, but by commercial enterprises like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and the Sierra Nevada Corporation headed by Fatih and Eren Ozmen. Governments accounted for just US$90.2 billion in space spending – with the US still accounting for 58 per cent of this.
While there is criticism of the likes of Bezos and Musk squandering their earthly fortunes on “vanity projects” and space tourism, there seems increasing scope for private enterprise to contribute meaningfully and valuably in space.
And since the world’s top 10 billionaires, including Musk and Bezos, saw their fortunes grow by US$800 billion, to US$1.5 trillion, over 2020 and 2021, there are plenty more billions for future “vanity projects”, including a US$100 billion manned mission to Mars.
The recent explosion of space activity is indeed head-spinning. Satellite launches have surged from 10 to 60 annually up to 2010, and to 1,400 last year, lifting the total number of satellites in low-Earth orbit to 7,500 by last September.
And this is just the start. Between them, SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and China’s Satellite Network Group have proposed a total of 65,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit (up to 2,000km from Earth), while Rwanda has announced a plan for a mega constellation, called Cinnamon, of possibly 320,000 satellites.
Aaron Boley, at the University of British Columbia, is not alone in seeing an alarming risk of accidents, and collisions with space debris. He has calculated that there are 12,000 trackable debris pieces (10cm or larger) currently in low-Earth orbit, with at least a million pieces down to 1cm.
He is troubled by the danger of the “Kessler Syndrome” predicted by Nasa scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978 – in which the amount of junk in orbit around Earth reaches a point where it just creates more and more space debris, causing cascading problems and ultimately gridlock for all satellites in low-Earth orbit.
These pressing dangers clearly scream out for international cooperation to avoid the creation of debris and accidental explosions, and to follow agreed rules on rights of way to avoid collisions. “We risk multiple tragedies of the commons in space,” warns Boley.
An obvious agency to set such rules would be the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and this is indeed where Beijing has sought multilateral agreements on space.
As long as this amendment remains in place, and assuming China has no plans to abandon its space dream, then Beijing can have no choice but to set its own rules and protocol – surely a recipe for danger.
Pushing China to develop a separate, parallel strategy in space is a clear and certain route to counterproductive competition and future conflict. It will neither puncture China’s space dream, nor help anyone’s.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view