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‘Jade Rabbit’ makes one small leap for China’s space program, as Chinese leaders call for international space cooperation

The successful landing of China’s first lunar vehicle represents a significant leap for Beijing’s ever-expanding space program. Chinese media is now reporting that Yutu has successfully reawakened after a potentially dangerous two-week hibernation to ride out the darkness of the lunar night. Yutu can now continue its detailed mineral survey of our planet’s nearest neighbor.

Yutu is interesting in its own right. It is also an important symbol of China’s growing interplanetary ambitions. As the space programs of other nations slow down, Beijing continues to make significant investments in exploring our solar system – investments Chinese leaders expect will have significant payoff.

Yutu’s soft landing on the lunar surface came just a few days after a serious incident on the International Space Station (ISS). A cooling pump malfunction resulted the suspension of non-essential activities on the ISS. Astronauts went on emergency spacewalks to fix the cooling system.  In the worst-case scenario, this problem could have led to the abandonment of the ISS.

Even by the most optimistic estimates, the ISS will remain serviceable only until 2028. If it is still operational by that time, it will probably have a neighbor in low Earth orbit.

Beijing has a publicly stated goal of launching a permanently manned space station by 2020. Just last year, Chinese astronauts conducted their first successful orbital docking procedure. Barring any unforeseen events, China could have humanity’s only operational space station in roughly a decade.

China initially sought to join the International Space Station, but was blocked by the United States over fears of Beijing obtaining “dual-use” weapons technology. In 2007, China successfully tested anti-satellite ballistic weapons.

However, strategic benefits are just one of the many motivations for China to invest in space. There are, of course, huge scientific advantages to having a presence above the Earth. Furthermore, Beijing expects its space station to “strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride.”

Finally, there is a very real possibly of reaping astronomical economic rewards. In 2012 Planetary Resources, a commercial space mining company, announced its intention to “add trillions of dollars to global GDP” through asteroid mining.

Chinese media has stressed the resource exploration aspect of Yutu’s lunar survey. Yutu carries ground penetrating radar capable of determining the mineral composition of the Moon’s crust.  Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences says the Chinese space program is motivated in part by “extraterrestrial resource development.”

Some outside observers worry about China’s ongoing space achievements, and call for America to launch a new space race. However, NASA’s budget has been seriously constrained in recent decades. Even ongoing, technologically viable missions, such as the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn, may have to be scrapped for budgetary reasons.

Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who visited Russia’s Mir station in the 1990s has another proposal for dealing with China’s growing space ambitions: “I think right now a lot of people see it as kind of crazy to co-operate with the Chinese, but I think it’s the next logical step.” He believes China should be brought onboard an international mission to return human beings to the surface of the moon.

A day before Yutu’s successful reawakening, Xu Dazhe, the new head of China’s space industry, was at the International Space Exploration Forum in Washington lobbying for increased extraterrestrial cooperation. Mr Da said that China is “willing to cooperate with all the countries in the world, including the United States and developing countries.”

Some countries, most notably Russia and Germany, have already begun cooperation with China’s space program.

China’s efforts in space follow in the footsteps of the American and Soviet programs. China’s orbital vehicles are largely based on Russian designs. According to some media, China’s relatively late start means that other countries shouldn’t be too concerned about Chinese efforts in space.  However, a historic parallel from China itself serves as a warning against self-satisfied complacence.

In the early 1400s, China’s Ming Dynasty had the greatest fleet the world had ever seen. Massive ships carried thousands of Chinese sailors from southern China to India, Persia, and Africa. Utilizing expert shipbuilding technology, the Chinese were able to transport giraffes and rhinos back to the Ming Court in Nanjing.

Despite its huge technological lead on contemporary nations, Ming China abandoned its oceanic exploration for political and economic reasons. New leaders believed that maintaining relations with distant lands was too costly, and had little value for their great empire. European adventurers ended up reaping the benefits of oceanic trade, and within a few centuries China was left far behind.

Space has immense strategic, scientific, political, and economic potential. China’s leaders would not make such huge investments in space if they did not expect concrete benefits. The rules that apply on Earth may extend beyond our planet: first contact is less important than a sustained presence.

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American Strategy is Exacerbating Sino-Japanese Tensions

Tensions are rising in the West Pacific, damaging ties between the world’s three largest economies. Several recent developments highlight the mounting pressures: China’s creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed islands, a naval incident between China’s new aircraft carrier and an American vessel, and the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to a controversial shrine. 

In light of these incidents, it is crucial to examine the role America plays in the region. Instead of alleviating tensions in the East China Sea, current American strategy may be adding to the friction – and indirectly solidifying the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.

In late 2011 Hillary Clinton announced a U.S “pivot” to Asia, promising to “lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.” 

“Otherwise” was a reference to military deployments. As part of this strategy, the U.S Navy plans to deploy 60% of its fleet in the Pacific. This military repositioning is almost certainly aimed at containing China – 60% of the largest, most technologically advanced fleet in world history seems excessive for countering a half-starving North Korea.

Since the announcement of the U.S pivot to Asia, regional tensions have increased dramatically. In September 2012, the Japanese government announced plans to “nationalize” the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are disputed territory between China and Japan.  This move set off the latest round of detonation in ties between Tokyo and Beijing. 

Escalations continued in November 2013 when Beijing announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. The airspace over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands was included in this zone. 

Another troubling incident was a recent standoff between China’s first aircraft carrier and the USS Cowpens. The USS Cowpens was physically blocked from approaching the Chinese aircraft carrier in international waters, in a move US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called “unhelpful” and “irresponsible”.

Finally, just a few weeks after the naval standoff, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine – a Shinto temple where the spirits of Japanese military men, including several convicted war criminals – are venerated. In response to this visit, China’s foreign ministry said: “Abe miscalculates regarding Sino-Japanese relations, making mistakes again and again. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where class A war criminals are enshrined… these war criminals were the planners of Japan’s war of militarist aggression… They are Fascists, the Nazis of Asia.”

In order to have a better understanding of Chinese (and Korean) anger over Abe’s Yasukuni visit, it is worth exploring the shrine’s viewpoint on Japan’s wartime actions. Regarding the Nanjing Massacre, a museum attached to the shrine teaches visitors: “The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.” 

Troubled Ties

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yuktio Hatoyama recently warned “Japan-China relations now face their grimmest situation since the two countries normalized their diplomatic ties in 1972.”

America’s regional stance may have emboldened Japanese nationalists to take a more provocative stance against China. The “nationalization” of the disputed islands and the visit of the Yasukuni Shrine were likely deliberate attempts to gain support by ratcheting up tensions with China.

Partially as a result of recent developments, 92.8% of Chinese now have an unfavorable view of Japan – a dramatic increase of 28% in one year.

American regional strategy has alienated not only Chinese leaders, but also the Chinese public. Chinese confidence in President Obama has plummeted from a high of 62% in 2009 to just 31% in 2013.

Not all of this shift in opinion can be attributed to Chinese state-controlled media and education. American regional military posture and support of Japan would likely be unpopular in China regardless of Beijing’s political system.

 It’s worth noting that after Japan’s tragic earthquake in 2011, hundreds of Americans took to social media to say the earthquake was a form of “payback” for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One can imagine how Americans would view react to Abe’ Yasukuni visit if Japanese forces had killed over 20 million Americans during a brutal eight-year invasion of the American mainland that involved systematic sexual slavery and the use of biological weapons.

Beijing’s Strategy

Territorial disputes between China and its Asian neighbors have become more intense in the last several years. Supporters of America’s increasing military footprint in East Asia argue that the American presence helps to deter Chinese territorial ambitions, and helps to keep the region safe.

However, this assertion is based on a dangerous misreading of Beijing’s political strategy. First, any war would be against the interests of China’s leaders. The Communist Party of China has been able to maintain its control of the country largely through delivering economic growth, and China’s economy is hugely dependent on international trade. China does more international trade than any other country in the world, and China remains Japan’s number one trading partner even in the midst of their escalating political tensions.

So why did Beijing establish the ADIZ over disputed maritime territories? Part of the reason is strategic. China is making efforts to claim more of the West Pacific as its exclusive zone of influence. They seek to push American military assets further away from China’s shores – just as the U.S would do if Chinese aircraft carriers sailed two hundred miles off the coast of Los Angeles, or routinely patrolled the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the domestic political situation is the main driving force behind Beijing’s recent moves. China’s leaders knew America and Japan would react strongly against their ADIZ. This was a purposeful move. Xi Jinping has only been in power for a year, and he wants to demonstrate his nationalist credentials against China’s rivals.

By vocally supporting Tokyo in the territorial dispute, and by positioning more military forces in the region, the U.S is actually playing into Xi’s plan to boost Chinese nationalism. America’s proactive regional stance helps to distract Chinese people from the pressing domestic issues of pollution, censorship, and corruption.

All sides know that war is against everyone’s best interests. Nevertheless, the words and actions and words of Chinese, Japanese, and American leaders will have real consequences, both regionally and at home.

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Chinese media downplays naval incident

Chinese armed forced have conducted deep-water drills of their first aircraft carrier. The U.S edition of China Daily proudly reports “Liaoning’s combat capability tested” while a link on the front page of People’s Daily features “Candid shots of the Liaoning aircraft carrier trials in the South China Sea”.

However, both stories ignore the most interesting development during the Liaoning’s maiden voyage: a confrontation with a U.S missile cruiser. The U.S vessel was told to stop while approached the Liaoning; when it continued on its path a Chinese tank-landing vessel blocked the American vessel and forced it to change course.

U.S Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed the incident, saying, “That action by the Chinese, cutting their ship 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action. It was unhelpful; it was irresponsible.” 

(Never mind that the U.S navy would probably react the same way if a Chinese vessel approached a U.S aircraft carrier in international waters.)

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has acknowledged the incident. However, it is generally being downplayed in Chinese official media. There is some coverage of the confrontation on the high seas – the military section of People’s Daily quotes Hagel’s commentary on the issue, and features some snippets of media coverage of the incident from outside of China.

One final note: Russia Today quotes a Chinese media source as saying Beijing may build an ultra-modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier by 2020.

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“American hawkishness is against its own interests”

Interestingly enough, Global Times left out the part where I specifically cite the American B52 bombers that tested China’s ADIZ. 

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December 22, 2013 · 11:46 am