Many (western and non-western) analysts are rather dismissive of the existence of a space race between the United States and China. Some indeed argue that China sets up its own agenda, independently of what the US does; that the space race is a concept put forward to drive US investment in space technology; or that the multiplicity of space actors make the very concept of a space race simply not relevant. However, several elements tend to point at the existence of such a race.
A race can be defined as a state of competition, in which the first to reach a certain objective wins. The key elements of a race are hence: 1) the players; 2) the objective to be reached; 3) the ‘prize’ or ‘thing to be won’; and 4) a sense of urgency, a belief that one is indeed engaged in a competition.
It is commonly argued that the US and China, as currently the two most powerful countries in the world, are engaged in a ‘great power competition’, and that this competition extends to the space realm. The question now is whether there is a tangible objective to be reached, whether there is a sense of urgency to reach it ‘before the competitor’, and whether there is something to be gained from it. This week’s interview with Ye Peijian
seems to indicate that it is the case, by highlighting the increasing importance of geopolitical factors as key motivations of the development of space technology in China. Significantly, he stated that “What others do, we will also do; what others haven’t done yet, we will do it; what others did well, we will do better”.
Moreover, there seems to be a general and genuine concern among Chinese actors that China may be deprived of space resources in the future by the US. Such concerns extend to the commercial sector, as demonstrated both by their mentioning during China’s deep space exploration forum that took place in Shenzhen in October, as well as in a recent interview of the co-CEO of oSpace, Yao Song, who mentioned that “Space resources are first-come, first-served, first-occupied, first-served. If we don’t go now, the sky will be locked up in the future”.
In any case, China continues its development of key technologies (such as sea-launch vehicles in the Haiyang Space Port), avoids alienating Russia by not reacting to the recent ASAT test, and is expanding its sphere of influence in the digital sector, as the first China-Africa BeiDou System Cooperation Forum,
held in Beijing on Friday 5 November, shows. It is also engaging in talks about cooperation in the space sector with Italy
, which is one of the first signatories of the Artemis Accords.
The state of competition between the US and China in the space sector (the space race?) is likely to be hotly debated by analysts and academics for years to come. You can read our Twitter thread on the topic here