Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

2011: A space odyssey fit for two

By Zhao Chu (China Daily Euroepan Weekly) Updated: 2011-10-21 11:08

Europe should once and for all dispel the dark thoughts sown by others about China's intentions

2011: A space odyssey fit for two

Most Chinese middle school students are familiar with the story of Wan Hu, who tried to become the world's first "astronaut".

He was a smart and fantastic carpenter, and some scholars believe he was a minor Chinese official of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). He invented the first rocket chair, a device designed to take him into the sky.

China's pride in four great inventions - paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass - extends to the country's having the first recorded "astronaut".

However, after those students are enrolled in colleges, or even earlier, they are likely to be made aware that the origin of modern rocket science and technology is rooted in Europe.

This two-pronged knowledge helps to improve mutual understanding of Chinese and Europeans. When Chinese reflect on the space achievements of their compatriots, they feel pride in ancient Chinese scientific glory. At the same time they have subtle respect for Europe, the cradle of modern space technology.

By and large, Europeans would be unaware of the multiplicity of thought and feelings by Chinese on this matter.

On Sept 29, two days before China's National Day, the unmanned module Tiangong-1, carried by the Long March II-F T1 rocket, lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. Tiangong-1 separated from the rocket on its way into orbit, and China's space dream moved closer to reality.

The European media, as far as I know, simply reported the event as well as its related plan without further comment. I cannot help wondering what this deafening silence means, especially considering the unsuccessful cooperation on the Galileo project. Galileo is a global navigation satellite system being built by the European Union and the European Space Agency. In 2003 China joined the project and invested 230 million euros in the following years, but quit in 2006.

What on earth are the real obstacles that prevent Europe and China from extending their cooperation into space?

To be frank, I think the main reason for Europe's hesitation is suspicion from the US. It has been wide awake to any high-tech progress by China and keeps on sounding alarm bells about the potential military threat from such progress. But those alarm bells have a hollow ring, because what Euro-US military experts say on the matter is untrue; China is not and will not be a military opponent of the US or a potential threat to Europe. Any military component to be found in the space program is defensive in nature. What China seeks is something from which the whole world benefits.

The second reason for Europe's hesitation may have at its root prejudice against China. Europe always seems to doubt that China gained much more from the earlier cooperation, and China's financial support for the project is ascribed to ulterior motives. Since the joint plan was abandoned, China has run space projects independently and has made significant new strides, while European countries continue to bicker with one another and lack financial support.

Many will recall similar, previous problems. Before the Cox Report of 1999, the work of a US government committee, China opened its space launching market services to clients including companies in the US, Europe and Australia and enjoyed stellar success. But the report fabricated a story about how China stole technology from these commercial contracts, and Western countries ceased cooperating with China.

But just as the failure of the Galileo project led to China's independent satellite navigation project Beidou (Compass), after the Cox Report, China made up its mind to start a new development and investment plan of space technology, and Tiangong-1 and other well-known achievements are just some of the results.

Following the launch of Tiangong-1, more is in store. Three Shenzhou missions will be launched later and are expected to dock with Tiangong-1, expanding the laboratory into a space station of 22 tons. More exciting and serious space exploration plans are on the drawing board.

If European countries can provide their advanced technology to formulate a framework of joint space projects it will be easier for both to make progress. In addition, Europe and the rest of the world will get to know more about China's plans.

Another reason for the lack of cooperation between China and Europe is politics. The moving sands of politics in Europe have brought an ebb and flow in the development of China-EU relations

In the first half of the last decade, leaders in France and Germany inclined to build a multi-polar world. They opposed President George Bush's war against Iraq, and pursued and pushed for dialogue with China and Russia. This fostered a friendlier atmosphere. It was in this period that China and the EU signed the agreement on cooperation in the Galileo project.

But things soon changed. After right-wing leaders gained power, policymakers across Europe made it clear after the invasion of Iraq that they wanted to mend fences with the US. Hence cooperation between China and the EU in the space sector was driven into a blind alley.

From the Galileo case we can see that US influence is an important external factor of China-EU relations. The US kept saying Chinese missiles relying on the Galileo project would sink US warships - and some US military experts even advocated shooting down Galileo satellites if necessary - while the EU said time and again that the system would be restricted to civilian use.

European officials and space professionals were well aware of the economic factor behind the US opposition (the US monopoly of the global positioning satellites system) but they bit their tongues out of deference to US-EU cooperation in international politics and economics. Europe politely let the extending hands of China go and saw the perfect opportunity of cooperation turn into a meaningless dispute.

Looking to the future of modern science and technology in space, it is obvious that there is fierce international competition. The Cold War boosted the development of the industry but also left a dark legacy: a way of thinking that interprets the development of normal space technology as military confrontation.

On the one hand, with the rapid development of military technology worldwide, space-based platforms and devices are a key to a country's superior military power. On the other hand, political leaders and ordinary people everywhere, fearing what weapons of mass destruction can do, all agree that the development of space technology should be limited to civilian use. There is no doubt that an arms race in space or offensive weapons deployed on the so-called high frontier will be destructive to all. This consensus and other lessons drawn from the Cold War are the basis of further cooperation in space.

The EU and China also have an opportunity to transform themselves from competitors into partners.

Space development lays down a path to the future; it is an investment for industry and for prosperity. Europe and China are important trading partners, and instead of wasting money on pointless plans they could easily join hands on that path to the future. China's successful recent launch represents progress not only for the country's space technology, but also provides an opportunity and sends a signal to Europe and others: We can work together on similar projects.

The author is deputy director of Shanghai Peace Institute. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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