TCS Daily

Beware China's Long March To Space

By James Pinkerton - December 3, 2001 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This article is the first of two parts

In 1972, Henry Kissinger met with Chou En-lai in Beijing and asked the Chinese foreign minister if he thought the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity. "We Chinese feel it is too soon to tell," Chou answered. Talk about keeping your cards close to your vest. Talk about keeping things in perspective.

Yet sitting atop 5000 years of Chinese history, Chou had a point: it can't hurt to let events unfold before rushing to judgment. The Chinese, after all, invented the game of weiqi -- known in the West by its Japanese name, go -- which requires the utmost in patience and a sense of long-term positioning. And that outlook spills over into geopolitics; the Chinese worked on their Great Wall, on and off, from the 7th century BC to the 17th century AD. More recently, they have been refurbishing their Wall yet again -- this time for tourists.

Americans, of course, are celebrated for their right-away, can-do spirit. As Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said as he was sworn in at the White House on October 8, "My friends in the Army Corps of Engineers remind me of their motto: 'The difficult, we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.'" That's great, to be sure, but there's a difference between the doing of deeds and the unfolding of time. That is, a people or a country can do everything possible about visible threats in the short term, and yet they can still be vulnerable to threats that are visible only in the long term. If the goal is protecting the homeland against threats, now and into the infinite future, a tortoise-like plodding can be as important as a hare-like sprinting. After all, tortoises usually outlive hares.

And so Americans should pay close attention to the latest news about the Chinese space program. Not because China necessarily poses a threat to the US this year or even this decade -- although there's plenty of evidence that it could -- but because China seems to be applying a Chou-like perspective to space. And that could have implications that could stretch out over centuries. Maybe Americans don't feel comfortable thinking in such time frames. But if they don't think in tortoise-time, they will ultimately lose to those peoples who think of themselves as part of a long-lived multi-generational continuum.

According to a November 22 report from Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, Luan Enjie, director of the State Aerospace Bureau, announced that his organization would push "the development of space technology, space utilization and space science in civil sectors, promoting the country`s economic and social development and national defense." China, the report continued, plans to send an additional 30 satellites into outer space in the next five years. China is also considering sending a man into space.

But wait, there's more: "China`s exploration and utilization of space, the so-called 'fourth frontier' of mankind has been encouraging and promising as the country is improving its aerospace technology and the national strength." The fourth frontier? One assumes that it's after the three, earth, water, and air. Xinhua continues: "Experts claim that the increasing population and the decreasing resources on the earth have made it necessary to seek new living space and resources in outer space."

Wow. China, a country of 1.2 or so billion people, is thinking about additional lebensraum -- room for living.

The news about China's space plans received little reverberation in the West. The Associated Press filed a story on November 23, quoting Chinese Foreign Ministry official Huang Huikang: "Some powers in the world are on the way to militarizing outer space, not peacefully exploring. Another arms race in outer space has begun since 1998, and we should be watchful."

One might suppose that one of the powers Huang referred to was the US, insofar as Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld led a bipartisan group -- the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States -- that released a sobering report on July 15, 1998. That report, unanimously endorsed by commission members ranging from Richard Garwin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to former Reagan-Bush defense official -- and contributor -- William Schneider, concluded: "The threat to the U.S. posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community."

The report also noted possible new threats from Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, in addition to existing threats from Russia and China. Such threats could be manifest, the report found in five to ten years. And as for China in particular:

China is modernizing its long-range missiles and nuclear weapons in ways that will make it a more threatening power in the event of a crisis... China also poses a threat to the US as a significant proliferator of ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction and enabling technologies.

All of which makes it plain that whatever arms race might exist between the US and China, in outer space or anywhere else, that race did not begin in 1998; the elements of great-power competition have been evident for some time. But then, as a revered Western text puts it, "there is nothing new under the sun."

But there are new developments in space. In January 2001, a second Rumsfeld commission warned against a "space Pearl Harbor." This second bipartisan group -- formally known as the Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization -- wrote that "the US is more dependent on space than any other nation." Yet, the report warned, "The threat to the US and its allies in and from space does not command the attention it merits."

The so-called "Rumsfeld II" group was reacting in part to possible threats from China. One such possible threat was reported in a Chinese-language Hong Kong newspaper on January 5; as transcribed by the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC, the report found that China had completed ground tests of "an advanced anti-satellite weapon called 'parasitic satellite' which will be deployed on an experimental basis and enter the stage of space test in the near future."

Of course, the "near future" for America has more to do with Afghanistan than China. But even as the US deals with short-term threats in one area, it can't afford to neglect long-term threats from other parts of the world. China doesn't have to be an enemy of America, but as it grows in power, it can't help but be a rival of America. And if the Chinese see space as a frontier for national expansion, then the US must react. After all, the lesson of human history is that there are no final victories, that the triumph of one era can be undone in the next.

And so while the consequences of the French Revolution can still be debated, the results of another 18th century revolution, the American Revolution, have been a huge boon to humanity. And yet, from a multi-millennial perspective, it's too soon to tell if the Spirit of 1776's good effects will be enduring. For now, it's up to us to do our part to safeguard the national continuity. And while we can't foresee the future, we can prudently look ahead to future threats and opportunities. The fourth frontier beckons to all humans. Americans should resolve to be there first, not letting anyone get there ahead of us.

Next week: China's Long March through history -- and into space.

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