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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Reuters October 13, 2005

China's reach for stars a growing challenge to U.S.

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's reach into space, joining an elite club of nations setting their exploratory sights beyond Earth, is posing a serious challenge to the United States which could have military implications, analysts said.

China on Wednesday successfully launched its second manned space mission, albeit aboard a ship based on an old Soviet design, but Beijing does not plan to stop there.

A mission to the moon and even an orbiting space station are on the cards, at a time when the world's only remaining space superpower -- the United States -- is troubled by a space program often behind schedule and over budget.

"Risk-averse American decision-makers would have to be focused on the possibility that the Chinese will beat us back to the moon. It would be a reasonable worry from the political perspective," said John Pike, a Washington-based observer of world space and defense programs.

"We're the sole remaining superpower, the only country that's sent people to the moon. If the Chinese sent people to the moon they'd take us down a notch."

Indeed, China sees its space program as an inevitable part of its bid for the international respect it craves and believes it deserves as the world's most populous nation and seventh-largest economy.

The country has made enormous leaps in its space program since it first sent a satellite into orbit in 1970, though all it did at the time was broadcast a revolutionary song into the void.

"The Chinese have a sense of destiny that is driving them toward an ever-greater standing among humankind," said Anthony Curtis, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, who follows China's space program. "Given sufficient engineering development time, there is no reason the Chinese program could not attain the capability and quality of the U.S. program."


China says it is exploring space for peaceful means, and does not want an arms race in space.

But at the same time, the country is modernizing its military at breakneck speed, with a defense budget that has grown in double digits almost every year, outpacing even its rapid economic growth, worrying it neighbors and the United States.

The Pentagon said in a report in July it was concerned about China's military modernization and economic might and feared the changing balance of power in Asia could threaten self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.

Bigger and better eyes in the sky could help China in shifting that balance of power, as could other technology developed in the course of a space program.

"The same technology that gives a nation the ability to precisely launch rockets powerful enough to carry men into orbit and then bring them back down safely can be applied to the precision firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles," Curtis said.

The United States has remained sanguine in the face of China's space program, and on Wednesday the State Department welcomed the launch and congratulated Beijing.

In Tokyo, a newspaper on Thursday called for the government to take Japan's own space program more seriously, and raised the possibility a Chinese space station could threaten global security.

"China is using its space technology as a lever with which to expand its influence in Asia," the Yomiuri Timber said in an editorial.

And some think that with Washington distracted globally by its war on terror, China could steal a march on the United States in the space race.

"Both Russia and China have their own military space agendas, and especially manned lunar plans, the challenge of which the U.S. is incapable of matching or exceeding," said Charles Vicki, a senior fellow at defense information Web site, Globalsecurity.org.

"They are challenging the U.S. predominance on the world stage because it is their belief doctrinally that the U.S. is a has-been world power that can and will be replaced by China along with other nations."

(Additional reporting by Paul Accrete and Deborah Zabarenko in Washington and Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo)

Copyright 2005, Reuters