On Friday 14th May, China’s Zhurong rover landed on Mars, becoming the first Chinese spacecraft to do so and only the second nation, behind the US, to land a spacecraft successfully on Mars. China hopes their Zhurong rover will give them 90 days of service as it studies the surface of the planet, collecting samples and data. This is an historic moment for China, as they demonstrate yet another arena where they can compete against and match the US. This follows their recent launch of the initial part of China’s first permanent space station, as they push to become technological leaders in a world where technology has become sovereign.
While America and NASA were quick to offer their congratulations to China, the recent news has sparked questions about potential competition between the US and China in space. America is the only other country to land successfully on Mars, avoiding any crashes and retaining contact with the rover after landing. However, this has not been met with unanimous positivity. Although speculation regarding a space race similar to that which the world saw in the 1950s and 1960s in the Cold War is inchoate currently, diplomatic tensions continue to worsen between the two countries, and the tech war is ongoing.
In context, many observers expected the new President to develop warmer relations with Beijing than his predecessor, but thus far, it seems the opposite is true, as Biden has maintained many of Trump’s trade tariffs, has upped the ante on human rights, and has continued the tough stance on technology. Therefore, hopes of cooperation are becoming more distant as time goes on. Biden left little to the imagination last February when he called Xi Jinping a ‘thug’. The latest flare up of tensions occurred following the meeting of the G7 foreign ministers in London, 3rd – 5th May 2021, where the G7 backed up Taiwan’s participation in WHO forums, which has been blocked by Beijing. China responded by warning the G7 to not intervene in their ‘internal affairs’, reiterating their One China policy. These are warning signs for what is to come during the Biden administration, as they repeatedly condemn China’s actions over human rights, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.
The Technological Gap
Much like the race to the moon during the Cold War, the race to Mars is similar. Although the US landed a rover on Mars in February, the pace at which China has managed to match them is mesmerising, considering they were widely considered a developing country not long ago. Moreover, this has generated insecurity in the US, which is already deeply concerned about the closing of the technological gap. China now has the greatest number of supercomputers. They are becoming leaders in technology and their Made in China 2025 proposes to reduce reliance on American high-value products and begin producing high-tech products domestically. This policy is often seen as the major trigger for the ongoing tech war between the two powers, as it poses a serious threat to America’s Big Tech. This achievement is another notch on China’s belt towards their endeavour for technological hegemony. Simultaneously, it intensifies the deep-rooted fear in America that China is usurping the US on the world stage.
Technology is set to define the twenty-first century as Big Tech becomes more and more powerful. Some experts even suggest that these companies are beginning to position themselves as governments, and they continue to amass power. While the Big Four or Big Five are all American, China’s leading Tech companies, such as Tencent and the Alibaba Group, are growing at an immense rate and are beginning to rattle the US cage. The war on Huawei highlights the American intent to maintain their technology supremacy. Thus, the battle over technological supremacy between the US and China will only intensify in the years to come.Space exploration represents an important battleground, one which is closer than the US would like to admit. It is doubtful that this competition will turn hostile like during the Cold War, however, it is not impossible to foresee acts of technological sabotage in this arena, as accusations of Chinese intellectual property theft are rife in the US, and these incidents may spillover into the astronomy sector in the future.
If the US begins to perceive China’s space program as a threat to their national security, as they have with Huawei’s intellectual property theft, it is not difficult to forebode the space sector becoming an area of intense competition between the two giants. Although China’s space program has not yet been designated as a threat to the US, it is already seen as a security concern. If the fears of a New Cold War do come to fruition, it is highly likely that technology will be at the forefront of brinkmanship. As Graham Allison noted in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, the US and USSR managed their conflict through vehicles of competition that avoided direct military competition. This is something that has been seen in Sino-US relations over the past few years, as the trade war has characterised bilateral relations since 2018. As China rises, it is fated to clash with the existing hegemon and any area China challenges the supremacy of the US will cause friction between the two nations. In sum, though the rover landing might not seem like a threat, it is part of the larger context of the Chinese challenge to American supremacy, which stirs up insecurity in the US and spurs intense competition between the two behemoths.