TCS Daily

China`s Long March to Space, Part II

By James Pinkerton - December 10, 2001 12:00 AM

Last week I noted the increasingly ambitious Chinese space program and considered the possible threat that such a program could pose to the United States in the future. And I observed that China, sitting atop 5000 years of history, is naturally inclined to look ahead a long way as well as to look back a long way. This is, after all, a country that dubbed its rocket, "Long March."

The Chinese, who call space the "fourth frontier," show considerable interest in pioneering that frontier with their own people, if not now, then eventually. If so, then that represents an evolution in thinking, suggesting that one of the huge blunders that China made in the last millennium -- failure to fill a geopolitical vacuum -- could be rectified in the coming millennium, as they seek to fill an astropolitical vacuum.

Historically, China called itself the "Celestial Kingdom." And the thinking, evidently, was that if China was the center of the universe, then there wasn`t much need to get out into that universe. That is, China was so rich that it could afford to be complacent -- or thought it could be.

In 1405 the Ming Emperor dispatched a fleet of 317 vessels to explore oceanic trade routes to the west. Six more expeditions followed in the next three decades, reaching India, Arabia, and Africa. These voyages were recorded in books with evocative titles, such as Marvels Discovered by the Boat Bound for the Galaxy and Treatise on the Barbarian Kingdoms of the Western Oceans. Yet in the mid-15th century, the Chinese made a U-turn, as it were; they backed away from their own exploratory achievements. They not only forebade future big-ship construction, but also outlawed going to sea aboard existing multi-masted ships.

Why? Some historians say that the Chinese, preoccupied with centralized order-keeping, did not want to be "corrupted" by the foreign influences that inevitably come with trade and travel. Others say they were anxious to concentrate resources on the rebuilding of the Great Wall -- a project that was first begun more than 2000 years before. But whatever the reason, the result was clear: by cutting itself from seafaring, China condemned itself to stagnation.

In this instance, one of the country`s traditional strengths - unity -- worked against it, because a single stupid decision coming from the imperial court was enough to stop the huge country from further ocean-going.

By contrast, Europe, -- which was poor, fragmented and fractious by comparison -- offered explorers a chance to "shop around" for the best possible patron. Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa, pitched the King of Portugal, the Duke of Medina-Sedona, and the Count of Medina-Celi before his ocean-going proposal was funded by the King and Queen of Spain -- and even that funding didn`t come until he made a second pitch.

Interestingly, the Spanish didn`t get to China first; they were beat out by their Iberian rivals, the Portuguese, who established a trading post at Macao in 1557 -- further proof that competition brings out achievement. Soon, of course, other countries, notably England and Holland, got in on the exploration game, and so began the West`s domination of the world.

It`s a familiar story, so perhaps we should turn to a "what if?" What if China had maintained its trajectory of expansion beyond the early 15th century? It`s hard to know whether it would have had military success in conquering, say, India -- after all, it failed repeatedly to subdue nearby Japan -- but it`s easy to see that the Chinese could have established themselves in the undeveloped Philippines.

And what of Australia? When the British began settling that America-sized island in 1788, it was virtually empty of people. Yet if the Australian aborigines could not stand up to a few Britons who had traveled 12,000 miles to get there, how could they have stood up to more numerous Chinese who would have had to travel less than a quarter of that distance? But of course, there were no Chinese, so the British scooped up a continent for almost nothing.

And what of the rest of the Pacific? If the Polynesians could scatter themselves throughout thousands of Pacific islands in pre-history, couldn`t the Chinese have done the same? And what of the Americas? How would history have been different if the Chinese had gotten to the west coast of what is now the United States before the English-speakers claimed it -- rather than after? What would have happened if, for example, Lewis & Clark met with minions of the Manchus as they traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean in 1805? Or if Zebulon Pike, seeking out the source of the Mississippi River -- and veering more than a little off course -- had discovered a tall mountain in 1806 only to learn that what he might have hoped to call Pike`s Peak in Colorado already had a Chinese name?

Why the Chinese missed this opportunity is one of history`s mysteries. But they appear to have learned their lesson. As Lang Sili, a Chinese government space scientist, told Xinhua last month, "For mankind in the 21st century, space application will become as essential as electricity and oil in the 19th century." And as noted last week, the Chinese see themselves at the vanguard of the human future in space.

Indeed, they have a space-tradition little known in the West; according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, a novel-length sci-fi tale, "Tales of Moon Colonization," was serialized in a Chinese magazine in 1904.

So what of China today? As of now, there`s not a lot of hard evidence that the Celestial People`s Republic is ready with a serious manned-space program. But of course, the Soviet Union`s Sputnik launch was an unexpected event, too, back in 1957.

Ben Zycher, a former staffer at the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan who has done much contract research work for the Defense Department, sees Chinese expansion into space as a component of Chinese expansion overall. "Inevitably, there will be military competition between the great powers," he says, "and inevitably, that competition will extend to space." Zycher, now a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, does not believe that competition must become conflict, but he does warn that space will become a theater of "friction" as the US and China jockey over space surveillance, commercialization, and militarization.

And that`s the point: it is not a certainty that the US and China will come to conflict, on earth or in space, but it is a possibility -- a possibility that the US must prudently prepare for.

Some will say that from an historical perspective, the Chinese are not expansionist. True enough. But as the documentation compiled in the two parts of this series suggest, there`s plenty of reason to believe that they have learned from their mistakes, that they have changed their minds. And just as the Chinese decided, as one, to go into terrestrial isolation more than 500 years ago, maybe today they could decide to go into a long march of extra-terrestrial extension.

Such switches do occur. To take another national example, consider the United States. Americans have been manifest destinarians since the Pilgrims, and yet now look at us; we`ve stopped manned exploration, and the last American walked on the moon in 1972. In other words, in the past few decades, without really much thinking about it, we`ve been making the same huge mistake that the Chinese made five centuries ago -- pulling back from a quantum leap into greatness.

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