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China aims to be a major player in the “celestial domain-space”

Image credit: Xinhua News Agency

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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.

Gao Tian-ya is a junior research fellow in international relations at SIPA, Jilin University

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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East Asia

Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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