China courted by U.S. to avert new space race

In the first of three articles, from the IHT and New York Times, Jim Yardley and William J. Broad look at space industries in China, Brazil and India, and the future of humans in space.

When President George W. Bush outlined last week his ambitious vision for a new era of space exploration, one country in particular was on his mind as he extended an invitation for international cooperation: China.

In the last year, China succeeded in becoming only the third nation to put an astronaut into orbit, definitively signaling that it intends to break into the front rank of space explorers. The Chinese plan to send more astronauts into space next year, to launch a Moon probe within three years, and aim to land an unmanned vehicle on the Moon by 2010, a half-decade before the deadline Bush set for the next Americans to arrive there.

The United States and China now stand at a critical point, between cooperation or competition, in what could be a costly and dangerous new space race that extends beyond China.

Bush was deliberately reaching out to the Chinese, a senior administration official in Washington said. “The reference to international cooperation was not a throwaway line,” said the official, referring to a speech by the president on Jan. 14. “It was an invitation. The president drew a day-night contrast. This is not the cold war.”

But it could be. And the Chinese are not alone in this new push to harness the power and prestige of space, which is fast becoming a necessary stop, like mastery of the atom, for aspiring global powers.

Nations like Brazil and India are taking ever wider steps to make sure they are not left behind in a new space race, intensifying the pace of exploration by the developing world.

Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, said the Bush administration had no choice but to respond to China’s recent advances in a space initiative.

“The success allowed China to reach out to other countries and they’ve been responding favorably, so we could not do nothing,” she said in an interview. “While a space race is not a foregone conclusion, it is a possibility.”

She added that the United States now had a window of opportunity for concord that might not last long. “Cooperation is the best position for the U.S. and the future,” she said. “An inclusive vision will give the U.S. an opportunity to assume the mantle of leadership on a mission that could inspire the world.”

The greatest concern is the militarization of space, using space-based weapons and satellites to extend the reach of nations or potential terrorists, and allowing more extensive and widespread intelligence gathering than ever before.

Such scenarios are central to the mistrust between the United States and China. Many American analysts note that China’s manned space program falls under a wing of the People’s Liberation Army, and suspect that China’s primary ambitions in space are military.

Some analysts contend that China’s manned space vehicle is specifically designed for potential military uses. Faced with the technological prowess displayed by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chinese leaders have emphasized the importance of “information warfare,” with the need for a presence in space.

In October, People’s Liberation Army Daily said outer space would become a “sphere of warfare” because space-based satellite technologies are essential for a swift, modern military. “It’s clear that the Chinese are worried about the U.S. domination of space, and that the U.S. considers China as a potential competitor,” said Adam Segal, a senior China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s probably a good time to try to talk about these things since we haven’t moved very far along in any of these plans.”

Bush never mentioned China by name in his address, but the administration official said that by not limiting his call to Europe and Russia he was implicitly reaching out to Beijing. Asked to comment on playing a possible role in Bush’s moon-Mars endeavor, China’s Foreign Ministry answered in broad terms, noting that China was committed to collaborating with other space-faring nations, including the United States.

But the Foreign Ministry also hinted at past frustrations, noting that the Chinese space program had already sought – without success – a stronger relationship with NASA. Since 2002, the ministry noted, the two sides have been talking about a meeting between the heads of the two space agencies.

“We hope the realization of this meeting will present an opportunity for developing Chinese-American cooperation in the space sphere,” the ministry said in a written statement.

Brian Harvey, who has written extensively about the space program, said the United States had in the past excluded China on space issues, partly as political retribution for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. In one case, American officials denied visas for more than 50 Chinese officials to attend an annual meeting of the World International Space Congress held in Houston. “The Chinese have felt very isolated,” Harvey said.

Publicly, American and Chinese officials now say the relationship is growing closer, even as frictions continue, particularly over Taiwan. Notably, the Chinese allowed General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to tour China’s top-secret space command center in Beijing on the same day that Bush gave his speech on space. The visit was part of a larger trip intended to build closer military ties. Myers also met with his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, and later conferred with Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese president who remains in charge of the Chinese military.

In a gesture to smooth tensions, Myers at a news briefing was careful to praise China’s successful launching in October. “Obviously, this is a big step for the Chinese space program, and we congratulate them,” he said.

China has taken other important steps as well. It recently teamed up with the European Union on a new global satellite navigation system. In a different project, China and the European Space Agency launched a research satellite last month to study Earth’s magnetic fields, China’s first such collaboration with developed countries, state news media reported. China has also joined with Brazil on satellite launchings.

In all, China plans to launch 10 satellites this year, and a total of 30 by 2005, almost doubling its current total of 16. These satellites have scientific, commercial and military applications.

More dramatic are China’s plans to build on the success of last year’s Shenzhou 5 space orbit, and eventually to land on the moon. Officials say next year’s Shenzhou 6 mission is expected to carry two astronauts on a space journey of five to seven days.

Efforts to reach the moon are beginning in earnest this year, and some experts in the United States speak ominously of a “red moon” – the possibility that China may one day launch military astronauts into space with the aim of setting up a Communist lunar base.

Last March, Luan Enjie, director of the China National Aerospace Administration, described the moon as “the focal point wherein future aerospace powers contend for strategic resources.” He told People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, that China is also interested in developing lunar energy resources, like helium 3, a form of the element that scientists say could power advanced reactors on Earth.

In an interview this week, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist for China’s moon program, said it was part of China’s larger efforts to become a leader in space. “China has made a lot of achievements in satellite applications and manned space flight, but we haven’t done much in deep space exploration,” he said. “We need a breakthrough in this field to fill the gap. As a starting step, the moon program is very necessary.” U.S. government documents, like the air force’s Space Operations Doctrine and its Space Command’s Strategic Master Plan, talk much about maintaining “space superiority” near Earth and even about using weapons in orbit. But they remain silent about the moon.

“There is nothing in air force planning for the moon,” said Theresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a private research group in Washington.

Still, some analysts believe the moon is part of a larger American military plan and interpreted Bush’s speech as unilateral in emphasis, with echoes of the cold war.