While NASA and the European Space Agency gets most of the world’s attention, China, Japan and India are racing for the heavens.
The surge of Asian countries joining the ranks of major space powers mirrors the rise of Asian economies and their militaries more generally since the end of the Cold War. But following the political drivers of these trends leads most often to regional rivalries, not a desire to compete with the United States or Russia. Being first in Asia to do anything in space brings prestige, lends credibility to governments in power, and helps stimulate Asia’s young population to study science and technology, which has other benefits for their national economies.
The responses to China’s rise have included the sudden development of military space programs by two countries that previously shunned such activities—Japan and India—and dynamic new activities in countries ranging from Australia to Singapore to Vietnam. On the Korean Peninsula, both North and South have orbited satellites in the past three years and both have pledged to develop much larger rockets. Many of these countries realize that they can’t “win” Asia’s space race, but they also know that they cannot afford to lose.
China’s rapid expansion in space activity has also raised serious concerns within U.S. military circles and in NASA. But these developments pose an existential threat to China’s neighbors, some of whom see Beijing’s space program as yet another threatening dimension to their deep-seated historical, economic, and geo-political rivalries for status and influence within the Asian pecking order. Even more, space achievements affect the self-perceptions of their national populations, challenging their governments to do more.
How this competition will play out and whether it can be managed, or channeled into more positive directions, will have a major impact on the future of international relations in space. The U.S. government has thus far responded with a two-track strategy, seeking a bilateral space security dialogue with Beijing, while quietly expanding space partnerships with U.S. friends and allies in the region, adding a space dimension to the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.
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