As China eyes the stars, U.S. watches warily

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011

IN BEIJING China's grand ambitions extend literally to the moon, with the country now embarked on a multi-pronged program to establish its own global navigational system, launch a space laboratory and put a Chinese astronaut on the moon within the next decade.

The Obama administration views space as ripe territory for cooperation with China. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has called it one of four potential areas of "strategic dialogue," along with cybersecurity, missile defense and nuclear weapons. And President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed after their White House summit last week to "deepen dialogue and exchanges" in the field.

But as China ramps up its space initiatives, the diplomatic talk of cooperation has so far found little traction. The Chinese leadership has shown scant interest in opening up the most sensitive details of its program, much of which is controlled by the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

At the same time, Chinese scientists and space officials say that Washington's wariness of China's intentions in space, as well as U.S. bans on some high-technology exports, makes cooperation problematic.

For now, the U.S.-China relationship in space appears to mirror the one on Earth - a still-dominant but fading superpower facing a new and ambitious rival, with suspicion on both sides.

"What you have are two major powers, both of whom use space for military, civilian and commercial purposes," said Dean Cheng, a researcher with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and an expert on the Chinese military and space program.

NASA's human spaceflight program has been in flux in recent years, fueling particular concern among some U.S. observers about the challenge posed by China's initiatives in that area.

There is "a lot of very wary, careful, mutual watching," Cheng said.

Song Xiaojun, a military expert and commentator on China's CCTV, said that substantial cooperation in the space field is impossible without mutual trust. Achieving that, he said, "depends on whether the U.S. can put away its pride and treat China as a partner to cooperate on equal terms. But I don't see that happening in the near future, since the U.S. is experiencing menopause while China is going through puberty."

But while China may still be an adolescent in terms of space exploration - launching its first astronaut in 2003 - it has made some notable strides in recent months and years, and plans seem on track for some major breakthroughs.

On the day Hu left for his U.S. trip, Chinese news media reported the inauguration of a new program to train astronauts - called taikonauts here - for eventual deployment to the first Chinese space station, planned for 2015. As part of the project, two launches are planned for this year, that of an unmanned space module, called Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace," by summer, and later an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft that will attempt to dock with it.

On a separate track, China is also working through a three-stage process for carrying out its first manned moon landing. The first stage was completed in October with the successful launch of a Chang'e-2 lunar orbiter. In 2012 or 2013, an unmanned landing craft is scheduled to take a rover to the moon to collect rock and soil samples. By 2020, according to the plan, a taikonaut could land on the moon.

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