The New Space Race


It was central to old occidental fantasies of the east that Cathay stood tall and strong as a majestic force, an intangible entity that mystified and terrified with its technological prowess and despotic enchantments.  In a sense, the language of mystery and terror has not left.  China endured invasion and occupation, but such historical incidents do little to erase entrenched perceptions.  Modern China now finds itself bankrolling America’s warring escapades, and proving to be an emerging force in various areas of global politics.  The relationship between China and the United States, permanently engaged, yet permanently estranged, is now moving into different areas of play.

Much of China’s new capabilities in the field of military excellence is exaggerated.  One only exaggerates a power one is confronting for a few reasons: to convey the impression that it is more formidable than it really is (always good for the military lobbyists to have an excuse there) and to assert one’s own primacy that is supposedly whittling away.  Given that the United States has been shown to be a cyclopean creature in its engagements after September 11, 2001, it needs new areas to blunder into to.  And what better than the outer frontiers of space, that other world that lurks in the discourse of international policy but is not as openly discussed as it should be.

On Thursday, China announced a grand space plan that would include the use of space labs, space stations and manned ships over the next five years.  Even the New York Times (Dec 29) stated that the ‘five-year plan for space exploration’ would ‘move China closer to becoming a major rival at a time when the American program is in retreat.’

China watchers are certainly concerned about China’s extra-terrestrial capabilities, though it is not easy to detect whether the analysis itself is far from being similarly terrestrial.  Eric Hagt and Mathew Durnin, writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies, claim that China’s earth-observing satellite capabilities have increased dramatically.  They make the claim based on assessments of China’s space network using orbital software modeling and satellite performance.  ‘China’s constellation of satellites is transitioning from the limited capability to collect strategic information, into a new area in which it will be able to support tactical operations as they happen.’

What the authors are suggesting is that the Chinese are making herculean leaps – even Chinese run of the mill satellites employ electro-optical censors that enable them to take digital images in various wavelengths of a high resolution quality.  While these might seem impressive, they do remain conjectures.  The authors’ own analysis was challenged in that same journal by David Wright, who pointed out flaws in the technical analysis being employed.  ‘Technical rigour’, was lacking.

The disputes between the authors are interesting if for no other reason that they illustrate a vital point: that no one truly knows what capabilities are present.  Instead, analysts coat their terms with vague questions and assessments: what, to take one example, is China’s capability in locating ‘situational awareness’?

In Aviation Week (Dec 29), it was noted that Beijing has launched over 30 surveillance satellites over the last decade, enabling the PLA to ‘monitor an expanding area of the earth’s surface with increased frequency, an important element of reliable military reconnaissance.’  A spike in government funding took place after 1996, when PLA commanders found themselves unable to monitor two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups deployed during a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.  The claim is an astonishing one in itself, given that carrier battle groups, even given the available technology in 1996, are considerable eye sores to detection.

Ross Babbage of the Canberra-based Kokoda Foundation ups the ante on Beijing’s capabilities, making the unverified claim that, ‘What we are seeing is China broadly acquiring the same capabilities in this area as those held by the US.’

Such analysis conforms to the codex of alarmism that characterizes strong and suspicious powers keen to maintain positions of strength that are seemingly slipping away.  It also suggests that the framework for another space race is being offered.  When the empire starts crumbling, wars and military competition seem to have a nasty way of intruding into policy.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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