Space is becoming an increasingly important place for the great power competition between China and the United States. Beijing's success in landing a lunar probe on the moon's far side is a significant development in this emerging field.
China has landed a lunar probe on the far side of the moon. On Jan. 3, the Chang'e 4 spacecraft, which includes a rover, performed a soft landing in the moon's Von Karman crater. It's the first mission to overcome the technical challenges of landing on the moon's far side, which, among other feats, requires the probe to communicate with Earth via a lunar satellite relay.
The Chang'e 4 mission is a coup for China's ambitious lunar and space exploration programs. The next step for the China National Space Administration will be to dispatch a lunar sample return mission, the Chang'e 5, as early as 2019 or 2020.
Why It Matters
China's growing ambitions in space go hand in hand with its more terrestrial competition with the United States. The 2011 Wolf Amendment to NASA's appropriation bill effectively bars the U.S. space agency from collaborating with China. Therefore, China must be aggressive and do things largely on its own. While landing on the far side of the moon is within NASA's technical abilities, the United States has not pursued the development and testing of spacecraft to accomplish such a feat.
Given the widespread media attention and hype surrounding the Chang'e 4 landing, the accomplishment helps to fuel Chinese President Xi Jinping's key political narrative that China is returning to its rightful place in the world under his purview, especially as technological prowess carries a great deal of prestige with the Chinese public. The landing also helps to shore up China's role as a partner to the developing world, where it has long used its space program to foster cooperation and tighten links. In fact, the Chinese government has even incorporated a space silk road component into its massive Belt and Road Initiative.
But the success also has concrete technical and strategic implications. To relay communications to and from the side of the moon that always faces away from Earth, China launched the Queqiao satellite in Ma, putting it into orbit in a location known as Earth-moon Lagrange point 2, which is around 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) beyond the moon's far side. This accomplishment marks the culmination of Chinese successes with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, as well as its quantum communications satellite research. The advances in remotely controlling the lander's descent and rover's movements have numerous applications beyond this specific mission, as many of the controls, launch technologies and other communications aspects could be adapted for military use. Technologies developed to survive the harsh environment of the moon could also be used in extreme environments on Earth.
Ultimately, China's progress in space will merely fuel U.S. concerns about China as a global competitor, strengthening the hand of those in Washington who are trying to mobilize resources to counter Beijing. In this regard, there is a parallel to the last century, when the German navy's buildup prompted the British Empire to pay greater attention to the growing threat of the Continental upstart — helping create a rivalry that would impact the entire globe. And, given that space dominance has long been a key bulwark of U.S. power, it will be a particularly important field for the budding great power competition as Washington seeks to maintain its military, technological and economic edge over China.