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Asia Nations Gaining Ground in Space Race

17 May 2007

A number of Asian nations are not content with being economic powerhouses - they have become serious contenders in the race to control space. From VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong, Claudia Blume reports that Japan, China and India are the main contenders in Asia's race to the stars.

In January, China sent a missile into orbit to destroy an aging weather satellite. A month later, Japan completed a network of four spy satellites that can monitor every spot on the globe. And in April, India successfully test-launched a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads across much of Asia and the Middle East.

The three countries are not only economic powerhouses - they are also the major contenders in Asia's accelerating race into outer space. All three are planning missions to the moon in a drive to build national prestige and technological dominance.

"What we can see is a triangular strategic competition in space," said Lawrence Prabhakar, an expert on nuclear and missile issues at Madras Christian College in the Indian city of Chennai. "So what we can see in possibly 10 or 15 years is an Asian space race of these three giants coming up with various strategies and technologies and platforms being launched up there."

China is the leader in Asia's space race. Its space program has been in the limelight since 2003, when China became only the third country to launch a manned spacecraft, behind the former Soviet Union and the United States. Beijing plans to launch its first lunar orbiter this year and to conduct a space walk next year. The goal is to send an astronaut to the moon.

Japan also is to launch its first lunar orbiter this year and plans to send a robotic explorer to the moon within three years. Manned missions are being considered.

Ajey Lele, a research fellow at India's Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, says New Delhi plans to send an unmanned mission to the moon next year and a manned mission to the moon by 2020. This year, India successfully recovered a capsule sent into space, a key step, Lele says, to pushing further into space.

"And then we will be in a position to send an unmanned sort of a vehicle, and then we will send a manned vehicle, that means a first Indian at space - from the point of view, the way the Chinese have done it in the year 2003 and subsequently they are doing it with good success," said Lele. "So that will keep continuing and then we will look toward the moon."

Other Asian nations, such as South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan, also are active in space and have launched satellites - usually putting them into orbit on rockets owned by other countries.

A number of factors fuel Asia's space ambitions.

Prabhakar says for India, engagement in space is vital in both civilian and military terms.

"Unless India has strong assets in space, its nuclear forces will not be operational - that's very clearly established. Unless India has a strong civilian presence in space its information technology economy cannot be sustained," he said.

Prabhakar says China's ambition is partly a matter of national prestige - a technological demonstration by a rising power. He says China also wants to convey to the United States that it should not take its position as the dominant power in outer space for granted. Prabhakar says at the same time, Beijing wants to send a strong signal to its neighbors.

"The Chinese would like to make it very clear -particularly to the Asia-Pacific powers - that it would like to be the pre-eminent space power as far as the Asian land mass is concerned," said Prabhakar.

Lance Gatling is an aerospace and defense consultant in Tokyo. He says Japan's program is driven in part by a degree of nationalism, and the desire to foster advanced technologies and industries. But competition with its neighbors plays a role too.

"Of course there is more interest when there is more news regarding Indian launches of heavy satellites and successful Chinese launches, and Korean efforts - that gets more interest in Japan, you get politicians more willing to spend money on such programs," he said.

Besides national prestige, the main benefits of costly space programs include advances in scientific research and the development of commercial satellite launch industries. But there also are potential military applications. Some experts warn of the possibility of an arms race in outer space.

India's launch of the Agni-III missile in April, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Beijing, caused international concern.

A number of countries, including the United States, are suspicious that China's space capabilities are intended for military purposes. Some critics say, for example, that Beijing's anti-satellite weapons test had military overtones. China, however, insists that its space program is only intended for peaceful, scientific research.

Japan's space program, developed in cooperation with the United States, is limited to peaceful uses. Tokyo's intelligence-gathering satellites are under civilian control. But Gatling says Japan's ruling party is discussing whether the military should be allowed to use the country's space assets.

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