The Second Space Race: Risks of War

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American and Chinese astronaut competing on the moon. (Image Credit: The Week)

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Those were the words of John F Kennedy in 1962 at the dawn of the Space Race. The previous year, the USSR had shocked the world by sending the first man into space. Uncle Sam was worried that its dominance was being challenged. What followed was the theatre of the Cold War, which had played out so violently on Earth, extending into the most impenetrable of frontiers: space. Where does this leave us in 2023? Though its participants have changed, decades after the first, a second space race seems to be on the cards. A race between China and America, with satellites, not the moon, at its centre. The Second Space Race is not some hypothetical future event, but playing out as we speak. Its results will perhaps define whether the 21st century remains at the status quo of American hegemony, or whether a new era of Chinese dominance dawn will.

Starlink is a large scale constellation of satellites provide high bandwidth internet, and is administrated by SpaceX. Aside from giving the individual high speed internet access, it has the potential to reshape international warfare, offering a form of communication less vulnerable to disruption, and able to broadcast scenes of battle worldwide. This has already happened in the Ukraine. China is especially concerned that it may yet play out in Taiwan in the near future.

Satellites also offer the opportunity to monopolize areas of space. China fears that the US is using Starlink to do so. Space offers a yet untapped frontier bursting with potential for economic growth in emerging industries from asteroid mining or the internet to e-commerce. In 2019, China calculated that lunar resources could offer it 10 trillion dollars per annum by 2050. In other words, China can expect the equivalent of half America’s GDP every year by 2050 from a single region of the moon. The politics of space will now affect the politics of Earth. At the moment it is uncertain how space will come into warfare. Satellites could be used for missile early warning and detection systems. Countries would be able to co-ordinate attacks not only from ground, air, and sea, but from space and cyberspace too. Whatever the case, one thing is clear. Whoever dominates space, will dominate Earth.

China has recognized this. It set up the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force and has made plans to enter cislunar space (the region between the Earth and the Moon) by 2049. Russia has also caught on, rapidly accelerating its space programs through projects such as orbital and kinetic ASATs (Anti- Satellite Weapons), jamming signals, and RPOs (Rendezvous and Proximity Operations – changing the trajectory of a space object). Both China and Russia are looking into nuclear powered spacecraft, which could enable deep space travel. The outcome of the first space race enabled the US to dictate the latter half of the 20th century with its superior technology, in the name of democracy, for better or for worse. Similarly, if China and Russia win the second space race, access to space may be restricted, not reflecting democracy, but their ideology of authoritarianism.

The US has been slower to reenter space. It has a slim edge in technology, primarily due to its robust private industry, spearheaded by SpaceX and its innovations such as reusable rockets. However, China is not far behind, having tested in 2021 a nuclear capable hypersonic glide vehicle able to fly through low orbit space. The stakes are higher than the 60s, and the US will need all the friends it has if it is to prevail this time. Thus, in 2020, it signed the Artemis Accords with its allies to promote international co-operation in space. The accords attempt to regulate the space economy, from mining the Moon, space warfare, to staking claim to whole planets entirely. It did not include Russia or China, who in turn refused to support it, leading many to question whether “co-operation”, was merely the continued promotion of American interests. It seems political relations in space go by the same relations on Earth. Thus, for either side to strengthen, they need as many allies as it can.

That is why China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which boasts 151 countries, 75% of the world population, and over half the world’s GDP, is ironically, key to the race in space. Much like the post-war Marshall Plan of the US, China recognizes that the more countries that rely on it, the better position it will hold in world politics. The Spatial Information Corridor has launched the BRI to space, giving participating countries access to satellites and space launch capabilities.

Both sides are gathering allies. The Artemis Accords and the Spatial Information Corridor essentially strive for the same thing: attempting to court Middle Powers. Countries such as the UK, India and Russia, will provide a huge advantage to each superpower. Whichever side provides the most attractive economic outcome to the Middle Powers will prevail. This is particularly shown in the US and China’s attempts to gain allies in Africa, motivated by rich mineral deposits. Materials such as cobalt, copper, and lithium that will provide the edge in research and development of new technologies for space.

However, without cooperation, the danger of space rises. With so many planned launches of satellites, the US and China, who have not met since 2017, risk collisions. Space is too vast for humanity to succeed in confronting it divided. The first space race made space a theatre of politics. The second risks space becoming a theatre of war.

Written by Sachin Thakrar

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