Sometime between now and the end of this year, China plans to launch the first module of its new space station, confirming that China is determined to become a full-fledged, independent, comprehensive, world class power in outer space.
China's methodical strategy of pursing mutually-supporting civil, commercial and military space activities is beginning to pay off. Space launch rockets can lift both civilian and military satellites; sensor technology can be adapted for both science and spying; communications systems are equally able to transmit orders to go to war or orders for children's toys.
China's civil space projects include not only the space station and the manned Shenzhou capsules that will carry its Taikonauts to it and back, but also deep space probes such as the Chang'e 2 probe, which has now been dispatched from lunar orbit to a point almost a million miles from Earth.
Its commercial activities until now have been limited to communications satellites and occasionally selling low-cost space launch services. US ITAR (International Trade in Armaments Regulations) technology export rules have, effectively prevented China from becoming a major player in the commercial space field. This has occurred in spite of efforts by some European aerospace firms to circumvent US restrictions by building so-called "ITAR Free" satellites.
China's new comprehensive military space activities include intelligence gathering and early warning satellites, military communications satellites, a new space based navigation system similar to America's GPS. Last but not least, they have developed and tested a kinetic anti-satellite weapon that they used to blow up one of their old weather satellites in January 2007.
Although in 1971, the devastating effects of Mao's Cultural Revolution were still all too evident, over the last 40 years China has changed out of all recognition. The country was impoverished, and its principal export a form of violent revolutionary ideology absorbed principally by gullible Western students, hippies and Intellectuals. In the late 1970s, China began slowly to dump most of Mao's ideology, and substitute Deng Xiaoping's concept: "To get rich is glorious."
Today China exports, among other things; computers, solar panels, car parts, toys and a comprehensive array of semi-sophisticated weapons. It is the second-largest economy in the world, and has just overtaken the US as the world's largest energy user. There is, however, one policy from the Mao era that has not changed: China insists on maximizing its strategic independence.
In his new book, "On China," Henry Kissinger explains that "The Chinese almost obsessive self-reliance was not always fully understood on the American side." This explains, in part, why US efforts to engage China in a mutually cooperative space exploration relationship, has been so frustrating and has lead nowhere.
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Many Americans imagined that China would be eager to join the International Space Station partnership, along with Russia, Japan and Europe. Leaders at NASA and elsewhere imagined that China would see its role in the ISS partnership as a way of certifying its status as one of the world's primary spacefaring nations. Instead, China has chosen to build its own space program, on its own schedule.
If China is using its space programs to bolster the political legitimacy of the ruling party, then it is certainly not the first, or the last, government to do so. What is more important than any propaganda dividend is the way China's overall technological level is enhanced by its successes in space.
Space operations and exploration are inherently difficult: spacecraft must be able to operate with lack of atmosphere, lack of gravity, boiling heat, freezing cold and deadly radiation, and still perform their missions. Any nation that can master this can automatically master other strategically significant technologies – for instance, robotics, unmanned aircraft, communications and missile guidance, sensors. This ability, in turn, teaches China's aerospace engineers to do perhaps the hardest thing of all - to build software that can make a complex system work reliably under adverse circumstances.
China's pursuit of what US space expert Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation calls "indigenous innovation" makes perfect sense from Beijing's point of view. The question for America is: Will we cling to our illusions about cooperation, or will we concentrate our efforts on building up our own native space power?