China's breakthrough into space

Several centuries ago, China invented the first rocket, and then, gunpowder. In the 21st century, on 15 October 2003, China launched its first astronaut into Earth's orbit. The launch of Chinese-made CZ-3 Long March rocket carrying a Chinese Shenzhou 5 spacecraft took place at a state-of-the-art launch facility in the Gobi Desert.

In 1970 China launched its first satellite into orbit and started to develop, without delay, rocket and satellite systems, actively participating in international space exploration programmes. Today, it possesses a formidable aerospace potential, which provides a strong impetus for the development of national science, industry, education and defence. What does it really mean for China and the other major participants in international space programmes: Russia and the United States?

With its manned space flight programmes, China is showing the entire world the capabilities of its economy and scientific potential. When speaking about the country's public response, perhaps, we should recognise the truth in the words of Mr. Lei, a Chinese historian quoted by The New York Times (October 13): "The Chinese public is also deeply aware of China's image as a scientifically backward country, and I think the idea of reviving China as a scientific power is very popular." Moreover, the launch is highly significant in geopolitical terms. First, there is the possibility that China might join the International Space Station programme (ISS). The Beijing authorities showed their interest in the project as early as in 2000, when the project started. Undoubtedly, they would want to use the Long March rockets to send supplies to the station. The success of the launch means that the Chinese might propose that Shenzhou spacecraft be used to deliver crews and cargo to the ISS, as well as the station's emergency vehicles, instead of Russian-made Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.

Such a development is quite possible, if not now, then in the near future. Moreover, China has repeatedly claimed that the ISS programme is impossible without its participation. In April 2001, head of the Russian Space Agency Yuri Koptev announced that China could participate in the ISS programme. An inter-agency agreement with one project participant only needs to be signed. Italy and Brazil have already acquired a similar status through agreements with NASA.

There are reasons to believe that the United States is now more inclined to see more parties involved in the project. Comments made by NASA chief Sean O'Keefe during an aerospace forum in Washington on 27 March, 2002, serves as indirect confirmation of this. Mr. O'Keefe stated that he and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had spend a lot of time trying to find ways to engage China in closer co-operation with the United States in the sphere of space exploration. It is worth noting that he said this two days after the successful launch of a Chinese-made Shenzhou 3 spacecraft in preparation for the first manned space flight.

Certainly, the Chinese-made manned spacecraft, designed on the basis of models developed in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, is far from perfect. China also lacks practical experience in this field. However, this is not the point. What matters is the fact that, according to the US Department of State, foreign investment in China has reached $41 billion in the last two years. A considerable part of this figure went, directly or indirectly, to the development of the space industry and related branches. The sizes of the Russian and the Chinese state budgets, $45 billion and $161 billion, respectively, indicate that Chinese-made space vehicles, including manned spacecraft, might cost less and, consequently, become more attractive on the global market than their Russian counterparts. Following the successful start, it is only a matter of time before China gains enough experience and develops a solid technological potential with sufficient financing.

The United States might be willing to help China join the ISS programme for purely political reasons. In particular, a great deal will depend on China's position, if the prolonged confrontation between the United States and North Korea is to be solved. In addition, by engaging China in close co-operation in the space exploration sphere, the USA might be able to exercise control over the Chinese space programme. In this case, China will become dependent on the United States to a certain degree, because the latter will lift the ban on delivering advanced American technologies to that country. This development, in turn, will substantially increase the flow of capital into the Chinese economy.

China has been actively promoting its carrier-rockets and satellite systems on the European market, thereby raising the possibility that it could become the direct rival of the United States in the near future. For example, in late September 2001, China expressed its desire to participate in the development of the Galileo European satellite navigation system, hoping that Chinese-made carrier-rockets and satellite technology might be used in the project. Now that it has made the breakthrough into space, the country could very well capitalise on its success.

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