Currently the strategic and global nuclear balance develops on the basis of three factors which are closely interwoven. The first one is related to Europe, which is marginalized after the end of the Cold War and will remain so for the years to come.
Today the European Union, both the Euro area and the EU-28, has not an overall strategy for the future. It has no credible nuclear weapons outside NATO, not even for the French-British duo, which stems from well-different considerations and interests.
Europe is destined to bad integration, because it lost the particular “third world war” called globalization, with the Middle East and the Maghreb region which will be for the EU the equivalent of what Southern Europe’s economies and societies were at the beginning of the unification process of the Eurasian peninsula, which was functional only to put pressure on the USSR and its military pact.
Indeed, President Barack Obama’s new geopolitics, which will certainly be maintained and followed by his successor to the US presidency, is to encircle the Russian Federation – hence the new strategic alliance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – and finally China.
In fact, China will be the next global competitor for the United States, both at Euro-Mediterranean level and in the Pacific region, which will be increasingly important for the United States.
NATO shall be rethought in this context, because it can no longer be the coalescence point of two strategic axes which are progressively distancing each other, namely the European Union and the United States.
Rethinking the Atlantic Alliance means, above all, to reformulate its nuclear threat.
This means NATO, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United Nations themselves, namely all the pillars on which the post-war world peace has been based so far.
NATO was designed for a final nuclear strike against the Warsaw Pact, thus playing a defensive role in relation to a wide invasion from the ground.
At the beginning there was no linkage between the Central European defense and the protection of the link between the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Nevertheless the Warsaw Pact has always considered nuclear weapons as an effective weapon system as any other, in relation to the magnitude and goals of the struggle for conquering Europe – the action that Raymond Aron called the “battle for the large Central European plain”.
The second factor of geopolitical renewal regards Asia, where the regionalization of geopolitical tensions and theories is growing.
China wants the security of its near seas and full control over the terrestrial area stretching from Xingkiang to Afghanistan and reaching up to the point of contact between the Heartland and the largest regional sea in the world, namely the Mediterranean, which will be the pivot of future global development.
In China’s logics, Land and Sea – the two axes of Carl Schmitt’ strategic thinking – are a continuum, not an opposition between Anglosaxon Thucydidean “thalassocrats” and European and Roman-Germanic chthonic forces.
Furthermore China will have ever more serious conflicts with Japan, which has started a timid rearmament, still scarcely effective at theoretical level, which, however, is a way for Japan to put an end to the mindset imposed on it by the winner MacArthur, after the end of World War II.
Both Russia and China have turned the “world without nuclear weapons” proposed by US President Obama during the current Summit held in Washington into the idea of a world without non-US nuclear weapons.
China wants either full security towards the Taiwan area, with a military projection onto the Pacific, or the de facto integration of the Republic of China into its region.
This will inevitably lead to very strong tensions with Japan, but we do not know to what extent it can acquire the US support in this new Asian scenario.
As already mentioned, the third factor of the global geopolitical transformation is related to the Middle East.
It is military divided between Sunnis and Shiites after the Cold War leaving it deprived of safeguards and controls. Nevertheless none of the two regional powers of reference, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, is able to manage a unified geopolitical project for the whole region on its own.
Integrating the Middle East chaos into an area without global geopolitical guidance, except for the oil blackmail, and with now obsolete weapons, as is currently the case for the EU, is an invitation to wage war, not to reach peace.
Moreover, today oil is causing tensions on world markets both because its price is driven by sectoral futures and because the costs of the Sunni or Shiite armed projection cannot be managed by the same actors, due to the ever smaller oil reserves and the need for internal social stability within the two countries.
If Iran and Saudi Arabia expand themselves, they acquire new energy sources, but precisely in doing so they destabilize the market of their buyers and depress the oil barrel price to pay military expenses.
Not to mention the US and Canadian shale oil and gas industry, which is currently undergoing a deep crisis because of the oil price, but which, in the future, could at least support the North American domestic market consumption.
Hence tensions which, in the Greater Middle East, are bound to remain so for a currently unpredictable lapse of time.
Furthermore, the United States have recently increased the funds for updating the nuclear arsenal by over 1 billion US dollars. This implies inserting nuclear weapons in high-precision carriers, in a strategic perspective which sees the new nuclear weapons operate in correlation with conventional military structures.
For example, the US Ohio-class submarines, which are the most efficient ones at nuclear level, will be fully renovated in 2012.
The newly designed non-nuclear US weapons are already being tested on the ground.
And this happens both in the United States and the Russian Federation, as well as in China.
Today we have reached the “second nuclear age” and it is almost useless to talk about old nuclear arsenals without connecting the reductions to the new geopolitical and technological environment which, like it or not, today is multipolar in itself.
Therefore the Chinese fears of a new arms race are well-grounded.
The new arms race, however, would take place in a context which is strategically diversifying itself, whereas the traditional global contact points are de facto obsolete.
Nevertheless the fourth Nuclear Summit of 2016, with more than 56 participating nations, excluding Russia, which did not accept the invitation, is a turning point for redesigning the nuclear potential.
Yet it is worth recalling that the world has really changed.
Russia has regarded President Obama’s proposals and the US policy in the Middle East as potentially hostile actions against its security, not to mention the new deployments of North American weapons and soldiers at the European borders of the old Warsaw Pact.
Russia does not want to be regionalized and China suspects that the new NATO and US encirclement of Russia is the second line of a forward defense, the primary goal of which is China’s containment along the terrestrial axis.
An encirclement which would reach South Asia’s regional seas, up to the US, NATO and even EU defense lines, as well as Japan’s (and South Korea’s).
But, within this framework, how can we regard the North Korean nuclear issue and its inclusion in global equilibria?
North Korea has nuclear capacity for many reasons: 1) to raise the price of its possible reunification with South Korea, but also 2) to ensure its autonomy after the definition of borders inside its peninsula, and finally 3) to marginally support both Russia’s and China’s defensive nuclear potential.
North Korea has never really relinquished the idea of an “anti-imperialist” linkage with Russia and China, but now the situation has changed and the two former big Communist countries operate on their own.
Furthermore Russia has freed for itself the axis between Ukraine and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
It is well-known that North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and even in January 2016, although it is unlikely for the device to have a thermonuclear nature, as maintained by North Korea.
Therefore, North Korea cannot reasonably use its nuclear arsenal for security in the North, where China continues to support Kim Yong Un’s regime, albeit in an ever more lukewarm way.
North Korea does not need to secure its regional sea, where the only hypothetical threat is connected to a linkage between a South Korean ground offensive and a US missile action.
Such an action would immediately trigger off the reactions of China, Russia, India, Iran and even Saudi Arabia, threatened in its areas of reference by the warheads responding to the US ally’s attacks against North Korea.
It is an option which, for the time being, has to be certainly ruled out.
The Kim Yong Un’s Nodong missiles have a range of 1,300 kilometres and the Musudan missiles have a range of 4,000 kilometres,while the Taepodong 1 and 2 missiles have a range of 2,000 and 8,000 kilometers, respectively.
A global threat from a country like North Korea is not a real threat, but rather insurance on the long life of that regime.
If the regime melts in the globalization of its “capitalist” South, Kim Yong Un will be willing to retain the role of armed contact between South Korea and the Central Asian landmass.
Conversely, if North Korea remains a sort of Marxist-Leninist Shangri-La, its nuclear potential will be useful to obtain better economic and political treatment and conditions from China and Russia, which would have an interest in integrating a reluctant North Korea into their continental set-up.
In a not too distant future it would not even be impossible to think of “fluidifying” the North Korean Armed Forces in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which could eventually be useful also for some Western countries.
As is well-known, the six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States started in 2003, immediately after North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The finalization of talks and the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula are no longer an effective project.
Moreover, unlike what happened in 2003 – and this implies a specific North Korea’s interpretation of US actions against the jihad in Central Asia – today all participants in the talks have nuclear diversified, and sometimes conflicting, strategies.
China has an all-out military nuclear capacity, which will gradually be extended in view of protecting its economic and strategic expansion.
The United States, too, have a comprehensive nuclear system which, however, does not sufficiently differentiate between high-risk areas and areas in which a reduction of the US military pressure would be useful, because this nuclear system is the result of the Cold War and of a sort of compulsion to repeat it.
Russia wants a nuclear system to protect its South and its oil areas, as well as to project its power onto the orphans of the Warsaw Pact and design a new strategic, but peaceful, expansion towards the Mediterranean basin and the Indian region.
Hence, with a view to reducing the North Korean threat, it is useless to unite the so called “six parties”, which reach an agreement at night and then quarrel during the day.
Furthermore nuclear talks should be combined with the talks on chemical and biological weapons, as well as with any discussion held at the Summit on the new weapon systems being tested.
If North Korea accepted a curbing of its nuclear potential, it would immediately be tempted to expand – covertly or not – its research and actions on the rest of non-conventional weapons.
We must avoid so by creating comprehensive talks.
So global talks, but with a basic idea: we must, first and foremost, ensure the sovereignty of North Korea, an old useless remnant of the Cold War, namely the post-war period in which the USSR decision-makers thought they could wage and spread many regional wars.
The issue lay in fomenting military clashes in the whole region stretching from Iran to northern Vietnam, so as to weaken NATO and US forces and de facto encircle, with a domino strategy, the European region and neutralize it against the Warsaw Pact.
Moreover, Indochina’s destabilization would directly threaten Japan, isolate US bases in the Pacific and finally bring the Communist threat up to California’s coast.
A pincer movement which succeeded only partially and only for Vietnam, which was the central axis breaking the so-called US “pearl necklace”, with the possible Communist control of the Straits of Malacca from the ground, from the “liberated” South Vietnam.
Thus ensuring North Korea’s national autonomy to dilute its N and BC potential at first along the Russian axis and then along the Chinese one.
In fact, the UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea seem to mainly damage the Russian strategic interests.
Russia, however, is also fed up with North Korea’s nuclear actions and tests, which isolate the Korean peninsula and severely undermine Russian plans for controlling the routes from the Persian Gulf to China and South East Asia, where Russia still has wide interests which will be even wider in the future.
Furthermore Russia still regards South East Asia as the base for the military security of the Southern part of Siberia and hence has no interest in destabilizing the Korean peninsula.
Hence Russia’s interest in stabilizing North Korea’s NBC arsenal is very great and should be fully used.
Therefore no more six-party talks, but rather a tripartite mechanism between China, Russia and the United States, in which the United States would ensure North Korea’ safety from US attacks from the US soil or bases, while Russia could project part of its nuclear missile arsenal to protect the North, thus gradually defusing North Korean carriers.
Finally, China could back part of North Korea’s economic development, by ensuring its North-eastern borders and expanding the Korean “Special Economic Zones” (SEZs), which have always been floundering in deep crisis.
The first North Korean SEZ was Razon, the first one built in the Raijn-Sombong area in 1991.
It is strategic because it could link the inland areas of the Chinese borders to the sea.
Sinuiju was founded in 2002 on the Yongbion river but, shortly after its creation, the Sino-Dutch businessman who ran it was put under investigation for fraud in China, while the SEZ project in the region is going on without great success.
The Kaesong SEZ, at the border between the two Koreas and spreading on the territory of both of them, is not yet operating in full swing and, at the time, the two leaders which created it, namely Kim Jong Il and Roo Moh Youn, were already planning a new SEZ in Haejou, along the coast.
Then we have the most recent SEZs, namely Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa, on the islands bearing the same name, with even fourteen new economic zones that the North Korean regime has planned to create.
The linkage is simple, namely the one between a transfer of N and BC potential and the expansion of North Korea’s old and new SEZs, mainly supported by China, while the Russian Federation, in a tripartite initiative with China and the United States, would support the North Korean uranium and plutonium cycle, with criteria similar to those adopted before and after the JCPOA with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Otherwise, the forgotten old Cold War between the two Koreas could overheat, ignite and set fire to the link between the Greater Middle East and the Central Asian Heartland – a disaster which is no good to anyone.
Kissinger Again Warns US, China Heading for Armageddon-like Clash
Last week, Henry Kissinger again warned US-China tensions are a threat to the entire world and could lead to Armageddon-like clash between the world’s two military and technology giants. Surprisingly, some Chinese are interpreting it as a threat to intimidate China in order to “accept and obey” the US-led world hegemonic order.
In January 2015, the peace group CODEPINK dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of the then 91-year old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate hearing. Twelve months later, at the February Democratic Debate Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were seen engaged in a heated duel attacking and defending the acclaimed diplomat respectively. The late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger warned editors, TV news channel producers and presidential candidates to stop soliciting Kissinger’s “worthless and dangerous” opinions. The never ending outburst of enmity on the part of CODEPINK, Sanders and Hitchens was due to Kissinger’s role in the brutal killings of thousands of civilians, gang rape of hundreds of female detainees, and alleged slaughtering of over one million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos among countless similar crimes against humanity since the early 1970s.
As documented in “Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record,” as some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told the ruthless Augusto Pinochet: “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” But Sanders-Clinton “spirited exchange” five years ago, as mentioned above, was not confined in Sanders’ words to Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history” of the United States. Sanders’ rare outburst also included Clinton defending her foreign policy mentor – Kissinger – on China. “[Kissinger’s] opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Hilary Clinton emphatically pointed out.
Sanders responded disdainfully and berated Clinton for admiring Kissinger. “Kissinger first scared Americans about communist China and then opened up trade so US corporations could dump American workers and hire exploited and repressed Chinese,” Sanders had retorted. On the contrary, no one in Beijing either knows or seems interested in the so-called negative traits attributed to the veteran diplomat who is generally known as the most “influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” As according to Peter Lee, editor of the online China Matters and a veteran Asia Times columnist, the CPC leadership value Kissinger as the “symbol, custodian and advocate” of a US-China relationship that is special.
Professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, described the re-opening of relations with China as Kissinger’s greatest achievement. In a review of Kissinger’s massive book On China, Friedberg wrote: “Kissinger’s six hundred pages on China are an attempt to apply the principles of foreign policy realism to the most pressing strategic challenge of our day.” (Emphasis given) However, the approach, taken alone, was far from adequate in anticipating the behavior of an increasingly powerful China on the one hand, and for prescribing an appropriate American strategy to deal with a rising China on the other, Friedberg went on to add.
Since Mao, all successive top Chinese leaders have met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing, some even more than once. China’s current President Xi Jinping is no exception. In fact, given the deep esteem with which reform era CPC leadership has been embracing Henry Kissinger, the general wisdom in Beijing is President Xi has horned his diplomatic skills by learning well his (Kissinger’s) oft-quoted aphorism “you don’t go into negotiations unless your chances of success are 85 percent.” Kissinger had first met with Xi in 2007, when Xi, as the party secretary in Shanghai, had received the most frequent foreign visitor to China on a visit to the city. When asked for his assessment of the party’s new general secretary within days of the 18th party congress in November 2012 by the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger had said “Xi Jinping is a strong leader capable of rising up to any challenge.”
In the past four decades of Kissinger-CPC bonhomie, the first decade thanks to Cold War passed off rather smoothly and uneventfully. The second decade ushered in with perhaps the first most serious test for both Kissinger as well as for the US-China relations since the unfreezing of the bilateral ties by Nixon-Kissinger pair in the early 1970s. In June 1989, the CPC rulers used brutal force to crush peaceful student demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square and launched nationwide crackdown on suspected dissidents. Though criticized by the US political elite for “Kowtowing to Beijing” for defending the CPC authorities by saying “a crackdown was inevitable,” Kissinger did influence the Bush administration in imposing comparatively mild sanctions while deflecting congressional pressure for tougher action.
In third and fourth decades respectively, unlike during the first two stages, ideology gradually regained initiative over geopolitics in influencing the bilateral relationship. There are mainly two factors for this. First, from 1979 to the end of the last century, China was relatively weaker than the United States both economically and in military technology. Following China’s rapid economic growth beginning late 1990s and at the turn of the twenty-first century, a section in the US political elite became apprehensive of China’s assertive and highly competitive stance. These concerns soon gave birth to the “China threat theory” which Beijing unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “China’s peaceful rise.”
The second factor has much to do with the world financial crisis in 2008 which resulted in the beginning of decline of the US economy on the one hand, and the unfolding of the seemingly evident intent of the CPC leadership to “eventually displace the US” and “re-establishing their own country as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.” In other words, with Cold War and the Soviet Union both long gone, and China perceived as threatening to soon replace America as the world’s number one economy, the communist rulers in Beijing were under no illusion that the ideologically hostile US was plotting “color revolution” to replace the CPC with democratically elected leaders in the People’s Republic.
The chilling of US-China bilateral relations during the first year of Obama presidency itself, with China replacing Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and further hardening of the US stance towards China, and finally the US “pivot to Asia” strategy introduced by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton – all these were perceived by Beijing as the US “creating political framework for a confrontation with China in order to maintain the global hegemony of American dominance.” Even Kissinger was very much aware of the changing stance in Beijing, as is reflected from what he wrote in On China: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy.”
Interestingly, although the most frequent US visitor to China has continued to visit China ever more frequently during the past decade, given the changing nature of polity in both the US and in China – especially the increasing “rivalry” under the Trump administration, it is not incorrect to conclude the Kissinger magic has gradually faded away from the bilateral relationship. It is least surprising therefore last Friday, when the “old friend of China” warned both Beijing and Washington in a speech at McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum in France, that their escalating tensions were leading the world towards Armageddon-like clash, the opinionated, vocal Chinese social media reacted with caution. “Kissinger used the so-called end of the world argument to threaten and intimidate China in order to accept and obey the hegemonic order by the United States,” a blogger responded.
A commentary in Chinese last week pointed out, ever since Trump launched “all out political war” against China, Kissinger has been in subtle and cunning way warning China to “cooperate” with Washington. The signed article entitled “Kissinger Continues to Scare the Chinese People” stated: “For the past two years or more, Kissinger has been repeatedly saying China must continue to compromise and obey the US hegemony and US-led global order. Otherwise, China will face the danger of World War I-like situation.”
To sum up, while calling Kissinger’s veiled threat a bluff, a reader posted in the chat room of guancha.cn – one of China’s most widely read online Chinese language news platform: the old man is a veteran who, more than anyone in China, has interacted with most number of China’s founding leaders. It is therefore his responsibility to explain to the world why most American politicians have failed to co-evolve with China’s leaders, Chinese government and with Chinese people? Why has America relentlessly carried on slandering China? Why America has been consistently accusing, vilifying and provoking China? Mr. Kissinger, please answer. Thank you.”
Post COVID-19, Can China Emerge as the New Global Power?
Authors:Makam Khan Daim and Mohammed Seid Ahmed*
There are many unknowns about the virus and that makes it incredibly challenging for every government to wage war against the common enemy. The politically divided United States was not ready for a crisis like such and is already going through a deep political division that is deviating the superpower’s attention from leading the world. The United has already left multiple multilateral agreements and organizations that it helped create in the first place Trump administration was running the nation without any clear policy goals. Trump’s administration was retreating from world leadership but at the same time reluctant to give up its position as a global superpower. Though the policies of the administration are pulling the US back from years of progress as a global leader. As the world waits for the US leadership in the outbreak of the virus, the administration and supporters downplayed the harsh nature of the virus. The repercussions of failing to contain the virus at an early stage have put the US as the leader in infections and death toll above all the affected countries around the world.
The previous US administration chose to engage in a war of words with China rather than undertaking measures to contain the virus at home and be an example to the world. On the other hand, the Asian nations have taken “draconian” measures in the American eyes but were successful in containing the virus more than any country in the world. China’s has 102,517 cases with 4846 death, the numbers might be disputable for some, however, figures from democratic countries like South Korea and Japan revealed that the Asian nation has successfully contained the spread of the virus. As of May 2nd, 2021, Japan has 82, 425 with just 1493 deaths, Korea has 123,240 cases with just 1833 deaths according to the latest data compiled by the John Hopkins University of Medicine, coronavirus task force. The US on the other hand, in the same timeframe, has registered a staggering 32,392,667infection cases and 576,722 deaths. Although Chinese figures are disputable the recent reopening of all cities and provinces, indicates that the virus is contained, and things are going back to normalcy.
Power is shifting to the East as many political scientists predicted and China as an Asian superpower is in the final stage of preparations to take the role of global leadership. India is the other Asian nation that can contest China, but India’s domestic issues, its relatively weaker economy, and the ever-growing population have been a challenge for the subcontinent to be a serious contestant for China’s activities in a global scale. In fighting this pandemic, the US has missed another opportunity to lead the world and take responsibility as a superpower. The administration’s adherence to the outdated protectionist policies, that is harming American workers, let alone leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, Trump’s denial of the reality and his enablers within the government put the nation in harm’s way and has culminated in the death of thousands of Americans.
New Zealand has come out of the battle against COVID-19 as a winner with its early lockdown and strict measures with the extraordinary leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and her administration. The European nations Italy, Spain, France, and Germany that have been hit hard with the virus are getting a sigh of relief after their worst at the beginning of the outbreak. Their large size aging population have become the victim of the virus, with a series of lockdown and extreme measures they have finally managed to mitigate the likelihood of more deaths related to the virus. Africa to the surprise of lots of people is the last continent that has started to see new cases. Africa’s young population under the age of 35 that makes up over 60 percent of the continent’s population could have worked in favor of Africans because of the viruses’ nature to attack mostly immune compromised and aged population. Nonetheless, the recent increase in testing for instance in Ethiopia is revealing hundreds of cases every day. Now, Ethiopia is reporting 258,062, with just 3709 deaths related to the virus. South Africa and Egypt are among the worst hit countries from Africa, in which the former has reported 1,582,842 cases and 54406 deaths, and the latter reported 228,548 cases with over 43,402 deaths respectively. Although, the death of a single person is painful, with all the indications and data available Africa is surviving this outbreak with fewer casualties. If whether this could be attributed to the nature of the virus or African government’s measures is remained to be seen in further researches and reports in the foreseeable future.
The problems that Africa could face if the infection rate increases drastically are dire, given the continent’s record in poor healthcare infrastructure, scarce of ventilators, hospital beds, small size healthcare professionals in relative to the population size. Developed countries with advanced technology and healthcare system in place have not been able to cope up with the patients’ demand and has been extremely challenging for the government and professionals to fight the virus. It is no brainer the challenges that Africans could face without the infrastructure. Nonetheless, while all the traditional global powers closed their doors and were fighting the pandemic, there is one rising superpower who has emerged to play the global leadership role in the fight with the virus. China has emerged not only as the hotbed for the virus but as a global power who is using the pandemic to project its soft power around the globe and play the role of the so-called “responsible power”.
In conclusion, China would be the winner in this epidemic, because of the measures it took and its quasi-leadership in fighting this pandemic using its soft power. It has already lifted the ban in Wuhan and now things are slowly going back to normal ahead of many other countries, which is beneficial for China to survive the economic fallout. Economists are predicting a global recession following COVID-19, but even if that is the case China will not be the biggest loser, United States, Europe, and the rest of the world are. One thing we all learn from this pandemic is that because of our intertwined interests and living by each other there is nothing that the world could achieve today without the cooperation and collective actions. Time will answer the question that will the United States take the lesson, embrace multilateralism again, and get back to lead?
*Mohammed Seid Ahmed, Freelancer(M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, currently based in California, the US)Mohemmed can be reached at mahmedseid89[at]outlook.com
China aims to be a major player in the “celestial domain-space”
Authors: Gao Tian-ya and Wang Li
Finally after seven-decade of earnest struggle, China on April 29 successfully sent into space the core module of its space station, starting a series of key launch missions that aim to complete the construction of the station by the end of 2022.It was reported that the core module, named Tianhe in Chinese referring to “Celestial River”, was carried into space by a new-type carrier rocket launched from one of the key Spacecraft Launch Sites located in south China’s Hainan Province, overlooking the South China Sea. Technically speaking, the core module separated off the carrier rocket 494 seconds later and entered its planned orbit swiftly. Then as scheduled precisely, its two solar array wings started functioning after smoothly unfolding, signifying a complete success of the launch.
In the wake of the successful launch of the Tianhe core module which is the largest spacecraft China has ever developed, Chinese President Xi Jinping extended warm congratulations and sincere greetings to all staffs who participated in the mission. The construction of the space station and a state-level space lab are the key goals to fulfill the three strategic steps in China’s crewed space program and a leading project for building China’s strength in science, technology and aerospace. Xi added that the construction of China’s space station enters into the full implementation stage, which lays down a solid foundation for subsequent tasks. It is self-evident that after persistent struggle for seven decades, now China is determined to continue moving forward to be one of the most advanced countries in the celestial domain—space.
Many people of the world have been curious in taking an inquiry in why China, which is still a developing country with 1.4 billion people, has consistently and resolutely allocated huge amount of its rare financial and technological resources to its well-known national projects of “Two Bombs (nuclear & hydrogen) and One Satellite (manned space program)” which has finalized the great power status” for China on the world stage. Perhaps, the most concise answer should be that “to complete national rejuvenation by the mid-21st century as China’s political mission and people’s aspiration.”To that end, Chinese leadership since the mid-1950s has been dedicated to this mission. Now after countless trials and tests, the construction of the space station and a state-level space lab is perfectly completed. For sure, as one of China’s most complicated space missions so far, the space station features a construction project that requires 11 launches in 2021-2022, including this launch of the core module, two more module launches, four manned missions and four cargo vessel flights.
Chronologically and technologically, China’s three-step manned space program can be defined into the first step in 1992 when the world media witnessed Yang Liwei, as China’s first astronaut, was sent into space and returned to Earth safely. It’s a substantial leap in terms of space exploration and then followed by another launch in 2005 in order to fulfill the mission. The second step was conducted in the 2010s in a series of testing key technologies needed for a permanent space station, including extra-vehicular activity, orbital docking, and in-orbit propellant refueling. The final (third) step is to assemble and operate a permanent crewed space station by 2022, which will mark a new high in China’s space technology. According to Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), “the station could support at most six astronauts at the same time. Regular launches of crewed and cargo spaceships will secure a long-term manned presence to carry out in-orbit research and services.” It is sure that such a large facility will provide many opportunities for scientific research and technological experiments with a view to understanding of the universe and promoting the development in science, technology and applications concerned.
Even though the great achievements made by China over the past decades, how can it advance towards one of the major players in the space program given the long-term experiences and complete technologies of the United States, Europe, Japan and particularly Russia which has been the leading power in the space field since later the 1950s? To deal with this concern, it is necessary to be aware of three points as follows.
First is the domestic capabilities of China. It is very clear that the Tianhe core module is the largest and most complicated spacecraft independently developed by China. It can support astronauts carrying out different scientific and technical experiments in space in all terms. As the key basis, the next two more modules will be assembled later in orbit to form the complete Chinese space station. What this launch and previously numerous launches of the space missions have approved China’s capabilities and potentials to further advance its space program.In effect, China is also pushing forward its lunar exploration of small celestial bodies, referring to the mission’s scientific objectives such as probing the surface composition, internal structure and other features of the two targets, and also detecting possible water and organics on the comet and studying the formulation and evolution of the solar system.
Second is the cooperation between China and Russia. From the very beginning of the 1950s, China’s space program has been benefitted by cooperation with the former Soviet Union and Europe. Given this, China National Space Administration has invited scientists around the world to participate in the space program, and several countries such as France, Sweden, Italy and particularly Russia have revealed their interests. More impressive is the the announcement that China and Russia has decided to jointly construct a space station on the moon. It is believed that the planned Sino-Russian lunar research base is a microcosm for larger geopolitical moves because the two Eurasian powers aim to change the US-led unipolar world order. As an U.S. expert in space science observed that a lunar research station on the moon jointly run by China and Russia will present America with a challenge it likely cannot pass up this 21stcentury race to the moon.
What Washington really worries is that Moscow—Beijing joint Sputnik program would dent America’s reputation as the world’s leading technological power. In so doing, it could also give both powers an advantage in what some see as an inevitable race for the Moon’s resources. Back on Earth, Sino-Russian station would also further cement what their leaders have described as the high-level strategic partnership. Due to this, it is better for the U.S. to reconsider international collaborations in scientific discoveries in space. Historically, it is during the Cold War that the U.S. and the Soviet Union negotiated the bedrock of international space law. Today, however, our actions in space are mirroring our divisions on Earth. While the U.S. charts one path alongside it’ partners via the Artemis Accords, the plans to develop a Chinese-Russian International Lunar Research Station continues a burgeoning trend of building an alternative security system, as Graham Allison argued.
In sum, considering the global issues ahead, the international cooperation in the outer space and on the earth as well is one of a few mechanisms which succeed in decreasing tensions in geopolitics, and probably serves as the best example of global cooperation for the good of world community. This is what China has advocated for creating an international community of shared future in which China aims to play a major role in both the celestial domain and on the earth.
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