Analysis Report | REPORT SYNDICATION
In recent decades, China has managed to surprise the world with its ambitious mega-projects. After the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is coming up with another mega-project. It was recently revealed that China is planning to create the first-ever Earth-Moon economic zone.
Over the next 30 years, China intends to build the necessary infrastructure to exploit this ambitious economic zone and expects to generate $10 trillion a year from there.
Zhang Yulin, during his tenure as the deputy commander-in-chief of China’s human spaceflight program, first announced this idea in 2016. Three years later, China has now revealed the plan and the timeline to implement this idea of an space economic zone into a reality.
At a space economy seminar on October 29 (2019), Bao Weimin, the Director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), revealed plans for the space economic zone.
According to Bao, it is expected that the initial feasibility study of establishing this mega-project and the key/basic technologies would be completed by 2030, a space transportation system to enable the economy would be created by 2040, and the space economic zone would be established by the middle of the century.
The idea might appear brilliant to many, as it would eventually make possible the settlement of the Moon, a dream of many. Also, the technology innovation required for creating that economy could lead to an “Industry 5.0”. Last but not least, it would expand the concept of the “space economy” in a big way.
IS CHINA READY FOR SUCH AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT?
Whether or not China can successfully complete this project depends on:
- China’s existing space capabilities.
- China’s experience to undertake major scientific and infrastructure related projects.
- China’s overall industrial capabilities and in particular, the abilities of their space industry.
Here are some of China’s accomplishment in space:
- first satellite in 1970
- the third nation to launch an astronaut (2003).
- a series of crewed space flights.
- two space stations, with plans for a third.
- lunar orbiters and a lunar rover.
- second biggest spender on space activities.
- leads in space launches (as of November 2, 2019) with 24 launches in 2019, followed by Russia with 19 and the USA with 15.
China’s had successfully landed its Chang’e-4 lunar probe on January, 3 (2019). It was a soft landing on the “far side of the moon”. For maintaining continuous communication between the Earth and the Chang’e-4, China has subsequently launched a relay satellite.
What’s more, China is currently working on a program to put “taikonauts” on the moon. China also has plans for a building a third space station.
China has made huge investment in space activities including space technologies. As of 2017, China had spent almost $11 billion on space, second only to the USA’s $48 billion.
Today, China’s economic, political, strategic and diplomatic influence and presence are very much visible. It is now the second largest economy in the world.
As China is becoming more powerful economically and militarily, it wants to dominate the important sea-lines of communication (SLOC) where a significant amount of global maritime trade passes. An ideal example could be Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea. China has built these islands by filling up the reefs in the sea and has built on these islands the port facilities, airports, military installations, radars, and hardened shelters for missiles.
China has also been developing various infrastructures on other important maritime locations. In Sri Lanka for example, China has built a seaport in Hambantota and later obtained a 99-years lease for the seaport as Sri Lanka couldn’t pay the debts owed to China. China is also developing a port city in Sri Lanka on the lines of Dubai or Singapore.
Under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is building infrastructures and pouring-in investments in European, Asian, and African countries.
Although the major aim of the BRI is to connect these countries across land and sea, this mega-project is limited to establishing the connectivity alone. There is a “digital” and “space” element associated with it as well.
Although China promotes the BRI from an economic standpoint alone, it is infact a geo-strategic project. The BRI is the prime force of China’s policy to facilitate its global rise in the international system and to dominate the financial and political landscape of the countries involved with BRI.
It wouldn’t be unwise to view economic zone between the Earth and the Moon in line with China’s ambition to dominate the global financial system and political institutions. Infact, a space mega-project is the only big option available to China, as was the case for other powers like the USA, the UK and France.
CHINA: USA’S PEER RIVAL IN SPACE
On September 5 (2019), the U.S. Air Force Space Command has released a thought-provoking report titled “The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for U.S. Strategy“, which labelled China as the USA’s “peer rival” in space. The report suggests that the USA must prevent a foreign power from becoming a leader over the space domain in future.
The U.S. President Donald Trump, during the Rose Garden ceremony on August 29 (2019), said: “Our adversaries are weaponizing Earth’s orbits with new technology targeting American satellites that are critical to both battlefield operations and our way of life at home. Our freedom to operate in space is also essential to detecting and destroying any missile launched against the United States.”
According to the first strategy report, which was released following Trump’s launch of the U.S. Space Command, warns that China is seeking to displace the United States as the leading space power.
Many geopolitical affairs analysts fear that China might use its space program and space activities for serving its military interest as well. After all, China’s space program is run by the People’s Liberation Army.
Chinese intellectuals have, for many years, urging their government to establish various alternatives means and tools to win a potential war with the USA, including establishing China as the space superpower. For example, Chinese military analyst Wang Hucheng stated nearly two decades ago: “for countries that can never win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.”
What’s more, China will be able to establish the rules of behaviour in the space—or atleast in parts of it where it establish presence—with its earth-moon space economic zone, with the courtesy of its first presence right. In that context, China would be able to set rules for who has access to the space economic zone and who can benefit from it.
Hence, this planned mega-project has long term implications for US-China relations. What’s worse, it will also impact the China-Russia and China-India relations, as all of these power countries have been heavily investing on space projects, activities and technologies, including moon-based exploration projects.
The USA, Europe and Japan are still the real power players in terms of spacecraft automation, sophistication and reliability. But as China continues to advance at gathering speeds, it sure seems like another space race might be in order. The notion that China is a burgeoning space superpower is harder to deny.