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China in space: Tortoise or dragon?

Experts debate whether its space ambitions are cautious or blasting off - and what this means for the world order

Is China the proverbial tortoise trying to play catch-up in a space race or a veritable dragon shaking up the exclusive celestial club?

The question came up again with the launch of the country's sixth and longest manned space mission two weeks ago.

Those who view China as a tortoise point to how it has largely been replicating what other space powers, the United States and Russia in particular, achieved decades ago.

For instance, the two astronauts on board the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft will spend 33 days in orbit, eclipsing its 15-day record in 2013.

But US and Russian astronauts regularly conduct year-long missions, while the world record was set by Russian astronaut Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days aboard the Mir space station from January 1994 onwards.

 

Singapore-based analyst Richard Bitzinger, who wrote a paper this May describing China as a "surprising tortoise" in space, also noted that the Shenzhou-11 voyage is only the country's sixth manned mission since its first in 2003.

In contrast, the US put a man on the Moon just eight years after its first manned space launch, added Dr Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

He explained that his "tortoise" metaphor is not criticism of the country.

"So far, the Chinese have made remarkable progress, and calling it a tortoise is not to denigrate it. Rather, it is praise for taking a cautious yet progressively successful approach," he told The Straits Times.

However, others highlighted how China's space goals are not unprecedented.

It is seeking to launch a permanent space station by 2022, a feat achieved by the Soviet Union and the US way back in 1971.

China is also looking to replicate US milestones such as putting a rover on Mars by 2020 and landing a man on the Moon by 2025.

Additionally, recent setbacks have cast doubts on China's capabilities: Its Jade Rabbit rover suffered technical difficulties soon after landing on the Moon in late 2013, and its first Mars exploratory probe failed to make it to the Red Planet in 2011.

This is despite its scientists having the so-called "latecomer's advantage" of tapping into technologies pioneered by other space powers.

Houston-based space novelist Mark R. Whittington, writing in a recent commentary, said China, while having achieved some impressive space feats, has "so far only replicated missions that the US and the Soviet Union accomplished 50 years ago".

"However, the situation may be a case of the tortoise versus the hare - of a slow, steady advance by one country against another country that, while capable of performing great strides, seems to be mired in uncertainty and a lack of direction and funding," he added.

Others also applaud the speed at which China is racking up new celestial milestones.

Dr Richard Holdaway, director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Space division in the United Kingdom, said China is already trying to build its own space station after only a few human space flights.

"It took Nasa 20 or so years to be able to do that," he was quoted as saying in a 2013 report by Wired, referring to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A string of "world-class" achievements has further boosted China's space dragon credentials. This August, it launched the world's first quantum satellite that will establish "hack-proof" communications between space and the ground.

A month later, it began operating the world's largest radio telescope in south-western Guizhou to help search for alien life.

China has also set goals yet to be attained by others, like sending a rover to the dark side of the Moon - forever facing away from Earth - before this decade ends.

Some believe China could have moved faster if not for political upheavals at the start of its space programme 60 years ago.

It reportedly began planning for human space flight missions from March 1966. But the Cultural Revolution broke out in May that year.

At the peak of the tumultuous decade in 1971, Mao Zedong disbanded an astronaut corps that was already in the works, saying at a meeting: "We should take care of affairs here on Earth first, and deal with extraterrestrial matters a little later."

China's dream of putting a man in space was realised only in 2003 through the Shenzhou-5 mission.

Professor Joan Johnson-Freese at the US Naval War College, and an expert on China's space ambition, told The Straits Times she sees the country as both a tortoise and dragon.

She cited how China launches a human space flight mission every three years and takes big steps with each, which contrasts with the early US approach of launching missions more frequently and taking smaller steps each time.

This is "something not all countries would have the patience to stick with, though China certainly has", she added.

China is a dragon in its tenacity and ambition, she said, adding that it "wants to become a space power", with all that this status entails.

China has pumped billions into its space programme. By 2013, it was the world's second-largest spender in space with an annual budget of US$13 billion (about S$16 billion), behind the US budget of US$40 billion.

"Politically, it has an advantage in not being responsible to an electorate for how government funds are spent. Culturally, the Chinese people are comfortable with long-term programmes, rather than, for example, Americans who want nearly instant gratification," said Prof Johnson-Freese.

Chinese leaders have also placed higher emphasis on space warfare.

A paper titled The Dragon Reorganises For Space by the Heritage Foundation analyst Dean Cheng in January cited the creation of the Strategic Support Force after a restructuring in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as proof of China’s intent.

He wrote: "For the US, the Chinese reorganisation is the clearest signal yet that, in the event of future conflict, the PLA will challenge the American ability to access and exploit outer space and cyberspace."

But Shanghai-based analyst Shen Dingli said China is uninterested in militarising outer space and is instead willing to partner other parties for its peaceful use.

Another major area of concern over China's space programme is the knock-on impact on its foreign policy, said Dr Bitzinger.

Space successes, along with progress in other areas like economic growth, may bolster the Chinese perception that it "has arrived" as a superpower and see it act more assertively in global affairs, he added.

"Of course, we're seeing this already, but the manned space programme might be one more piece of impetus," noted Dr Bitzinger.

Such concerns are unnerving to other countries - especially the US amid cutbacks to its own space programme - based on testimonies from experts in a Sept 27 congressional hearing about China's space ambitions.

Among the experts was Dr James Lewis of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who reportedly said: "We don't want a tortoise-and-hare situation where the once slow-moving China passes the US."

The pivotal race is on.


Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that the paper titled The Dragon Reorganises For Space was by Brookings Institution analyst Dean Cheng. Mr Cheng is actually from the Heritage Foundation. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'China in space: Tortoise or dragon?'. Print Edition | Subscribe