East Asia Forum

Geopolitics goes into orbit with the space ambitions of the United States and China | East Asia Forum

Author: Saadia M Pekkanen, University of Washington

Space stations are the harbinger of a growing bipolarity in international space relations. The United States leads the International Space Station (ISS) and will lead everything after it, but it is no longer considered the undisputed unipolar power in space. China now also has a national space station, named Tiangong, which represents a milestone achievement for the country’s space program.

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst (not pictured) work outside the space station's Quest airlock during the first of three spacewalks of the Expedition 41 crew aboard the International Space Station, October 8, 2014 (Image: NASA via Reuters/Alexander Gerst).

The ISS and Tiangong are not divorced from the quest for national technological supremacy. If technology is “power in practice” for China, it is no less important for the United States, which has long seen the transformative potential of technology as essential to its national security.

The United States has also moved to a more muscular industrial policy in an attempt to lead the industries of the future. In an effort to maintain its pre-eminence, it has turned on tech decoupling so bluntly that there is no doubt that it seeks to prevent China from becoming a tech peer of any kind.

Great power competition on technology is now open. This extends to space issues for both countries and is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

From the American point of view, it is concerning that China was the first to land on the far side of the moon, targets the same lunar resources in the race to return to the moon, can carry out complex missions to return from samples, has plans for a permanent moon base and now also has a space station which is considered second only to NASA in terms of technological sophistication.

Concerns about technological primacy in space are also linked to concerns about other threats that space stations face – or pose.

The life of any physical infrastructure can only extend so far. The ISS is currently expected to survive until 2030, while Tiangong is expected to remain operational for around 10 years. But collisions with debris and other objects are a common threat. The ISS can dodge debris at high speed, but is occasionally hit. Satellite mega-constellations also present a challenge for space stations. It has already been confirmed that Starlink satellites have had close encounters with the Chinese space station and it has also engaged in collision avoidance.

Then there are the disturbing “uncontrolled” threats. As the viability of China’s space stations has grown, so have uncontrolled entries and failures to behave responsibly. China has drawn attention to the uncontrolled re-entry of parts of its Long March 5B rocket that delivered modules to Tiangong. Debris scattered around the world – in Ivory Coast in 2020, in the Indian Ocean in 2021, and near the island of Palawan in the Philippines and in the Pacific Ocean in 2022. The uncontrolled entry of his experimental space lab in 2018 was also cause for global apprehension.

In China, one opinion is that these criticisms are simply attempts to discredit or sabotage the progress of its space station. After all, the ISS has itself spun out of control, leaving everyone from the ground to the ISS scrambling to regain the stability of the sprawling station. In 2021, a software glitch tipped the ISS out of its normal flight position, and attitude control over the station and communication with its seven-member crew was lost.

These threats are common to all space stations, and when tied to geopolitics, they can be useful in bringing allies on board. While it’s unclear if the allies will stick to one side or the other, it’s clear that alliance politics extends into space more than ever. This is why China could well work to cultivate a reputation for more responsible management of space.

The United States has cocooned the ISS in an alliance architecture, even bringing together former adversaries. Led by NASA, a 1998 agreement between five space agencies – belonging to the United States, Canada, Japan, Europe and Russia – governed collaboration on the ISS.

The ISS is heavily promoted as an inspiring scientific achievement. More than 260 people from 20 countries have visited the largest collaborative infrastructure ever built in space to date, and thousands of researchers from around the world have used its facilities to conduct experiments.

But the ISS is only scientific and international up to a point. Canada, Japan and Europe are also key military allies of the United States, a fact that is proving useful to the United States in the new race for lunar space. And China failed to enter.

China itself is looking for allies and space partners. Through Tiangong, it strives to highlight experiments and scientific and technological exchanges. As with the ISS, China is scrolling through the range of its space station partners – including the European Space Agency, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Pakistan, Kenya and the Office of United Nations Outer Space Affairs. Tiangong is hailed as the “first of its kind open to all UN member states”.

If things go their way, China may well be the only country with a functioning national space station. Indeed, in addition to opening up the ISS to business and marketing opportunities, the post-ISS future is a work in progress for the United States. The United States is tied to the dream of commercial space stations, but whether that space dream will materialize remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it is foreseeable that there could be a void in the American presence in space, a void that China aims to fill.

Saadia M Pekkanen is a Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Professor and founding director of the Space Law, Data, and Policy Program (SLDP) at the University of Washington, and founding co-chair of the US-Japan Space Forum.

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