When a Chinese spacecraft last week signalled from the far side of the moon, Bejing media were quick to describe the achievement as “a huge stride” for the nation.
The deliberate echo of Neil Armstrong – and the Cold War space race he won – also carried an implicit warning: China under its unabashedly nationalist President Xi Jinping is becoming a global space power and should be treated with more respect.
Underpinning last week’s achievement is a rapidly growing global network of base stations and satellites that the Pentagon warned this year were part of Chinese military plans to make space “central to modern warfare”.
“It’s part of a more total Chinese effort,” said Bob Walker, adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign. “This is an indication China has the capability to use the moon for military matters.”
Since China began its trillion-dollar “one belt, one road” infrastructure network in 2013 it has not confined itself to building roads, railways and ports across the globe – often saddling recipient countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka with billions of dollars of unsustainable debt. It has simultaneously invested in a space network that spans the globe with China National Space Administration (CNSA) ground stations in Australia, Kiribati, Chile, Sweden, Namibia and Pakistan. Kenya and Venezuela are thought to be among other hosts, but details could not be verified.
Among the stations providing telemetry for the Chang’e-4 lunar landing was a Chinese-Argentinian facility near the town of Bajada del Agrio where at least eight Chinese personnel are based.
Officially, China’s rhetoric on its space exploration programmes is benign, but military planners fret that the rapid development of its BeiDou global positioning system as a rival to the American GPS and EU Galileo systems heralds a new era of competition.
At the same time, China is investing in expanding its network of telecommunications satellites with Venezuela, Nigeria and Brazil all announcing joint projects last year.
The BeiDou system, which is due to be completed in 2020 with a network of 35 satellites, has both civilian and military applications, and this year Pakistan became the first Chinese ally to get access to BeiDou’s military side, according to The New York Times.
The move deepens fears China is creating the infrastructure that will underpin a global web of strategic relationships to rival the post-war Western military hegemony.
“Space power is about soft power in that it feeds into nationalistic narrative internally and narrative of China’s growing power internationally,” said Adam Ni, China scholar at Australia’s Macquarie University. Dean Cheng, an expert on China’s space efforts at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said China was investing in big-ticket space projects to reflect its arrival as a rival to the US.
“When, not if, China puts a man on the moon that’s going to have a huge psychological impact,” he said. “This has always been an example of US exceptionalism. Once the Chinese are able to do it, it’s no longer exceptional.”