Asian space programs accelerated significantly in the past year. Both North and South Korea can now boast successful space launches. China conducted its most extended space mission with a crew (including China’s first female astronaut), spending 10 days aboard the Tiangong-1 space lab. Its indigenous Beidou/Compass satellite navigation system began regional service. Japan, meanwhile, placed two imagery satellites into orbit last month. Very clearly, the major East Asian powers are all busily establishing their presence in space. Meanwhile, India has announced that it will launch a mission to Mars in 2013.
As ever, much of this is driven by terrestrial concerns. Space is seen as emblematic of national power and prestige, much like hosting the Olympics. Moreover, fundamental security concerns argue for developing indigenous space capabilities. Not surprisingly, then, the politics of the two Korean space programs reflect the tensions on the peninsula. China’s space efforts include yet another “missile defense test,” which bears a strong resemblance to a 2010 Chinese test described as an anti-satellite shot. Japan’s deployment of intelligence satellites has been driven by growing concerns, first with North Korea, and now with China. And it is no accident that China, India and Japan each placed a satellite in lunar orbit within a year of each other.
While there may be a budding Asian “space race,” it will be a marathon, not a sprint. None of the major Asian players are rushing to launch rockets, even as each keeps a wary eye on the neighbors.
In this context, the United States has a unique opportunity to help influence terrestrial concerns through space activities. The United States is an ally of two of the burgeoning space powers (Japan and South Korea), and has been forging a variety of links to India. With its array of space capabilities, extensive space experience and of course space surveillance infrastructure, the U.S. can facilitate many of these nascent space efforts. Simultaneously, such assistance signals to both Pyongyang and Beijing that intransigence and aggression will be countered, not only on earth, but also in the “strategic high ground” of space. Further revisions in American export controls should lead to greater space cooperation with friendly states and help blaze a democratic path to the stars.
First appeared in The New York Times' "Room for Debate."