Does the Chinese Space Station Put Pressure on the US?

The successful launch of China’s Shenzhou 12 spacecraft has attracted widespread attention around the world. Some U.S. media believe that China is developing its own space station in large part because of U.S. political obstruction in the field of high-tech cooperation. With the full-scale launch of China’s space station construction, the United States may also be motivated by China to make a major breakthrough in the field of space. This argument, which seems to have some validity, is not quite right when you think about it more carefully.

China is building its own space station according to the “three-step” strategy of space engineering formulated nearly 30 years ago, and construction has been based on the gradual mastery of manned spaceflight, extravehicular activities, rendezvous and docking, and space station-related technologies by its own forces from the very beginning, so China’s space development is not entirely due to political obstruction by the United States. The fact that China has always had difficulty in acquiring Western equipment in top-level high-tech fields, especially in space, has caused China to rely on its own forces to develop space technology since the 1960s. Space technology expands the cognitive frontiers of the universe, and has both high scientific value and prospects for broad application.

Behind this backwardness in the field of high-tech, which has historically traumatized China for nearly a century, is the more serious fact that China’s perception of how significant high-tech research and development is ambiguous, a situation that has changed since the reform and opening up period. China is focusing on science and technology innovation as a dark horse driver of socio-economic development, and it is impossible not to pay attention to the field of high-tech, including space.

Will the United States, which once led the construction and long-term operation of the International Space Station, be motivated by China’s construction of its own space station? I don’t think so. If anyone is irritated, it will be the very few who have long held a bias against China. The United States has much more ambitious plans in the space sector, such as a circumlunar orbital station, a Mars Sample Return program, a new manned lunar landing program and a manned Mars landing program, which clearly cannot be said to have been spurred on by China. The United States will certainly continue to make significant advancement in space, as determined by its current dominant position in the field of space technology, resources and talent. As the technological power of mankind as a whole advances and more countries and regions begin to set their sights on deep space, it is unlikely that the United States won’t consider whether it is time to take a big step.

It is worth noting that China’s space engineering programs are not based on surpassing the achievements of others, but rather on a steady and pragmatic approach to actively pushing past its own limits. These engineering programs are closely aligned with China’s current level of technological and economic resources and will not impose a heavy burden on China’s economic structure. Under this principle, even if the United States continues to advance, China will not simply follow this as a benchmark, let alone follow the circle drawn by others. On the contrary, for the United States, its ambition may really become a burden if it develops its space program with the goal of “greatly surpassing China.”

To a large extent, the pressure on some Americans stems from their own behavior. The overall rise in strategic relations between Russia and China in recent years, especially the increase in the level of cooperation in the field of aerospace science and technology, is related to the consistent behavior of the United States itself. The establishment of a scientific research base on the lunar surface will be a major aerospace science project between Russia and China for some time to come. Once Russia and China join hands in this field, then it is likely they will achieve extremely significant breakthroughs. Breakthroughs of this magnitude have not been made by the United States since the end of the Cold War. Even if the U.S. government continues to forcefully block and isolate science and technology workers involved in China, it is almost impossible for the U.S. to effectively stop a country like China, which has an unusually strong capacity of endogenous resources.

In the long run, with humanity’s current level of resources, the journey to cosmic space must and can only be made hand-in-hand. But for now, cooperation and competition will inevitably fill orbital space, and the specter of militarizing space cannot yet be ruled out. If mankind is really competing to advance the peaceful development of space technology, that is not necessarily a bad thing; this competition will at least accelerate progress with respect to our technological capabilities. But if countries bring the grudges on the ground into space and block the possibility of cooperation it would be a sad day for humanity.

The author is editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge at the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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