South Korea’s successful satellite launch this week served as the latest act of one-upmanship in an accelerating space race gripping Northeast Asia.
Membership in the elite global space club is being pursued by wealthy countries that can afford it as well as economic basket cases that cannot, a quest for political stature driven more by emotion and nationalism than economic promise.
What nations get out of creating their own space programs is a heady cocktail of national pride, technological muscle-flexing and the power to project military menace as a reminder to neighbors that they won’t back down from the region's mounting territorial disputes.
The intensified competition is also providing a stage for China to flaunt its growing aerospace capabilities and to underscore that manned flight and space-based surveillance will remain priorities despite U.S. efforts to bridle Beijing’s gallop into the final frontier.
“China is rising and it wants to show that it can do what other countries can’t,” said Wei Liang, a professor of international trade and development policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Space race contestants in Asia insist they are pursuing new technologies solely for peaceful civilian uses, Liang said. But she noted that the programs are often “dual-use,” meaning they can further a country’s nuclear arms capabilities as well as put people and surveillance systems into space.
North Korea’s Dec. 12 rocket launch succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit, as well as demonstrating -- after at least two failed attempts -- that the country could engineer a long-range rocket capable of carrying a nuclear missile to the U.S. West Coast. Pyongyang has since boasted that an underground nuclear test is soon to follow, and has made it clear that the United States is the perceived enemy against which it is arming itself.
Earning money by launching other states’ satellites and developing products and systems that can be used by the civilian community are incentives for big players like the United States, Russia and China, said James Lewis, director of technology and public policy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“People talk about the economic benefits of launch capabilities, but it’s mainly the prestige and military uses that are the drivers,” Lewis said.
Manned space flight and satellite surveillance also burnish China’s self-image as a technologically innovative leader, helping to insulate the regime from public complaints about the country’s rampant corruption, poverty and pollution, Lewis said.
China took the unusual step of joining other U.N. member nations in condemning the latest North Korean rocket launch as a violation of resolutions aimed at shackling Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the vote has only complicated the region’s delicate diplomatic balance, as North Korea is now thought to be pressuring its communist allies in Beijing to back similar censure of U.S.-allied South Korea for its satellite launch Wednesday, even though Seoul has no nuclear weapons program.
For either Korean state to be building up a space program makes little economic sense, said David Wright, co-director of the global security program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
He points to the Surrey Satellite Technology company founded in Britain under the motto “Changing the economics of space.” It pools resources and capabilities of smaller states to bring them the benefits of satellites without having to reinvent the spaceship.
“The idea is to wean countries away from having to duplicate these very high-cost things like launchers to use space for the kinds of things it is well suited for,” Wright said, referring to the weather-, security- and disaster-monitoring data provided by satellites.
China has attempted a similar collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization it founded 14 years ago. But to date it involves only seven other states -- Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey -- and remains handcuffed by U.S. export-control laws that forbid satellites with any U.S. content from being launched by China.
“China is not in a position to substitute for the United States in that international market yet,” said Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But excessive trade restrictions and U.S. measures aimed at isolating China for alleged human rights abuses have raised concerns among American aerospace specialists about their own competitiveness in the international space industry, Kulacki said.
By forcing China to go it alone in space, including the expected launch of a moon rover this year and completion of a space station by 2020, the United States is casting the quest for space programs as an adversarial contest and encouraging the Chinese to make deeper investments so they can win.
“China wants to be a full-fledged member of the international space community, and the United States is still putting obstacles in the way,” Kulacki said.
“These things are remembered. They have consequences,” he said of denied U.S. visas, exclusion from professional conferences and Washington’s failure to make good on a promised reciprocal visit to NASA by Chinese space agency officials who hosted their U.S. colleagues six years ago. “It plays into the larger narrative of Chinese foreign policy, that the United States is discriminating against China and trying to hold it back.”
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.