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Go boldly into space, but jointly too

Publication Date : 25-06-2012

 

Not without reason, China was in an exuberant mood over the weekend over its first manned docking in space and its record 6,965m submersible dive in the Mariana Trench. Netizens poignantly recalled how Mao Zedong waxed poetically: "We can clasp the moon in the ninth heaven and seize turtles deep down in the five seas." The simultaneous achievements deserve to be toasted even if others "have been there, done that".

China lags the United States and Russia by decades in manned space flights. And a Swiss-American bathyscaphe reached nearly 11,000m in the same trench in 1960. Still, the milestones are impressive. In space at least, China is speedily and steadily catching up.

How much more would it have gained had it been given the opportunity to collaborate with others, rather than going it alone since starting its programme in 1992? It is spending billions of dollars to develop 'soft power' by boosting its own media channels and by organising mega events. Its leap into space has image-building potential too. But it would be better for all if China's efforts are not viewed as just playing a catch-up game to prove a point but part of a collaborative approach in space research for the good of all.

Encouragingly, it has apparently not ruled out collaboration, but the Foreign Ministry's insistence that China is eager for 'international cooperation' has yet to be proven.

Oddly, however, the US prohibits its National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) by law from working with China. Such reluctance is shortsighted. The US has had to cut back Nasa's funding because of partisan wrangling. With the Nasa shuttle programme recently scrapped and International Space Station money ending in 2020, China looks surprisingly set to dominate at least lower-orbital space.

Long-standing suspicions can more easily be overcome through cooperation than through public relations exercises. These fears will inevitably intensify, if China is in the position to destroy American or other countries' space assets. Its claim that its activities are 'for peaceful purposes' was seriously undercut in 2007 when the People's Liberation Army executed a 'kinetic kill' with a surface-to-orbit missile, reducing a disused weather satellite to space debris.

All this does not mean China sees space as a new battle front. But the technology is capable of being used for war as well as for peace.

As major powers, China and the US should reach out and cooperate. So too should other Asian players, like Japan and India, which are also looking to the skies. When it comes to space, collaboration should be the way to go.

 

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