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China Hot on America's Heels in the Space Race

Visitors look at a model space suit during the InnoTech Expo 2016 in Hong Kong on Sept. 26, 2016. (Imaginechina via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – The United States appears poised to maintain its historic leading role in the international space race for the near future, but China is showing signs of significantly upping the competition, according to a leading expert in relations between the two countries.

Dennis C. Shea, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told members of the House Subcommittee on Space that China is projected to take major steps in its manned spaceflight and space exploration programs over the next few years, drawing significant attention to its efforts in space and potentially setting the stage for a larger leadership role.

While China’s investment grows, Shea said that for the foreseeable future, at least, the U.S. is positioned to retain scientific and commercial leadership in the space domain.

“However, China’s more deliberate and comprehensive approach will open up opportunities for Beijing to derive important economic, political and diplomatic benefits from its space program in the near term,” Shea said. “The series of high-profile activities China has planned over the next six years will be particularly influential, as it may appear China is reaching major milestones that the United States has already achieved and is thereby gaining ground, during a time in which the United States is readying for longer-term exploration projects.”

Since the beginning of September, China has launched its second space station, named Tiangong-2, which will host a three-person crew for up to 20 days at a time. The giant Asian nation has also unveiled the world’s largest radio telescope; the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) will search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars, and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Beijing also has announced plans to land and return a lunar rover in 2017, send a rover to Mars in 2020, and complete a space station in 2022.

China’s activities, Shea said, underscore “the importance of U.S. commitment to its objectives in space – specifically, its discussions on manned asteroid and Mars missions in the 2020s and 2030s — so that this apparent disparity does not continue after this period.”

Lawmakers expressed some alarm over China’s space ventures. Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-Texas) asserted that President Obama’s cuts in the budget for National Aeronautic Space Administration in favor of his “radical political agenda” have affected America’s standing in the space race.

“This vacuum of leadership has led not only to extended dependence on Russia for access to space but also facilitated the ascendance of China as a leading spacefaring nation,” Babin said. “China has capitalized on this administration’s weakness by offering partnerships with other nations on missions, like a return to the Moon, which the U.S. chose to walk away from.”

Rather than chart a “bold course” that inspires engagement with the international community, Babin said, the Obama administration “has alienated historic allies and potential partners alike. Only because of Congress is NASA building deep space exploration capabilities.”

China, Babin said, has “demonstrated a willingness to answer calls for collaboration with open arms.”

“This has clearly strengthened their soft power and international standing,” he said.

Shea testified that China has “become one of the top space powers in the world after decades of high prioritization and steady investment from its leaders, indigenous research and development, and a significant effort to buy or otherwise appropriate technologies from foreign sources.”

“Specifically, China’s large-scale, state-sponsored theft of intellectual property and proprietary information through cyber espionage has helped fill knowledge gaps in its space R&D, provide insights into U.S. space plans and capabilities and identified vulnerabilities in U.S. space systems, enabling future space and counterspace operations,” Shea said. “While China does not release budget information for its space activities, its spending on space is likely growing, although still dwarfed by that of the United States.”

Public reports, he said, have estimated that China spends $2 billion to $6.1 billion per year on its space program, compared to about $39.3 billion spent by the United States and $5.3 billion by Russia in 2013.

China, Shea said, is taking a “methodical” approach to its space strategy, but pursuing multiple large-scale efforts simultaneously — a space station, a lunar program and a Mars program.

Mark A. Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a group organized to establish a more secure Asia by the century’s mid-point, told lawmakers China’s capacity for leveraging space assets presents a number of defense challenges for the U.S., its allies, and friends in the Asia-Pacific region.

“In short, PRC (People’s Republic of China) space-related ambitions are driven by political, economic and military considerations,” Stokes said. “With a broad mandate granted by party and state authorities, the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) plays a leading role in developing operational requirements for civilian and militarily-relevant space systems, overseeing technology development that could satisfy operational requirements, and managing the national space launch, tracking, and control system.”

Stokes maintained that under a “national policy of military-civilian fusion, the line dividing civil and military space is becoming increasingly blurred” in China.

“In closing the technological gap with the United States, the PRC’s capacity to field increasingly sophisticated space systems is largely a reflection of its organizational efficiency and an expanding pool of capable engineers,” Stokes said.

Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, also raised concern about the Chinese military’s ties to space exploration.

“All of these developments reflect the reality that the U.S. and China are engaged in a competition regarding the ability to access and exploit space in support of national security objectives,” Cheng said. “For the Chinese, it seems clear that they hope to limit our ability to employ space systems, while ideally preserving their own capacity. This is an asymmetric situation, however, because the United States is far more reliant on space to conduct military operations than the PRC. Most American conflicts, after all, occur at a significant distance from our own shores and the Western Hemisphere. Communications, intelligence gathering, even weather prediction all rely more on space assets.”

By contrast, Cheng said, China is mostly focused on military operations in its general vicinity. There can be benefits from engagement in at least gaining some familiarity with each other’s organizational patterns and behavior.

“However, the expectations need to be tempered,” he noted. “China’s space capabilities are intended first and foremost to serve the interests of the PRC, including the PLA, and those interests are often not congruent to our own.”