Since 1990, China’s economy has without let up, shrugged off the shackles that birthed underdevelopment and kept its people poor. With Gross Domestic Product growth, which never went below 5% since 1991, at 8.0% in 2000, the once South Asian underdog has moved from the crampy side of the global economy to the forefront, defying the odds in baffling ways that have held the world in awe.
In 2021, China is leading the world’s post-covid economic recovery with a record growth of 18.3% in the first quarter of the year. It’s the biggest jump in gross domestic product (GDP) since China started keeping quarterly records in 1992. The world’s most populous country has thus made a quantum leap from $1.211 trillion GDP in 2000 to $16.64 trillion GDP in 2021. There is only one country standing in the way of China — the United States.
While China’s center of focus has been economic development sustained by long-term plans, it is not lagging in other areas where the US and Russia have dominated for years. Its exploits are now telling stories that 20 years ago would have been discarded as fables. They bordered on military might, and now space aeronautics.
With 2,185,000 active military personnel, China’s People’s Liberation Army ranks first in number of personnel. It has also moved from a $22.93 billion military budget in 2000 to $209.4 billion in 2021, ranking second to the United States.
China’s military strength has, in a matter of a decade, revived rivalry with the US Army, increasing its geopolitical authority, expanding its power play in the international scene, and making it a formidable force that the rest of the world has become wary of.
But away from these feats, the South Asian country is leaping up to the sky, a place it is least expected to be seen, at least not now — space technology and astronomy.
China’s first efforts at human spaceflight started in 1968 with a projected launch date of 1973. Although China successfully launched an uncrewed satellite in 1970, its crewed spacecraft program was cancelled in 1980 due to a lack of funds. Since then, China had made other attempts at astronomy, but they had been largely overshadowed by US and Russia exploits until recently.
On November 23, 2020, China launched its Chang’e 5 mission, a moon explorer-mission designed to harvest materials from the moon. The lander landed on the moon on December 1, and the return capsule brought about 60 ounces (3 3/4 pounds, or 1.731 kilograms) of lunar material back to Earth’s surface on December 16. The materials were the first new moon samples in 44 years, and China became the first country to send an unmanned rover to the far side of the moon.
In February 2021, China’s Tianwen-1 mission, an unmanned spacecraft launched in July last year, landed on Mars with a combination of an orbiter, a lander and a rover — making it the first to send all three elements to the red planet. The success of the mission ignited a discussion on how far China has come to disrupt the status quo as it coincided with the US perseverance mission, which is also on a fact finding assignment on Mars. The US, following the dissolution of Soviet Union and Russia’s waned interest in space activities, has exerted supremacy in astronomy for long, but now, it’s getting challenged by a newcomer from the east, and it seems to be getting started.
On Saturday, three Chinese astronauts entered China’s space station during the Shenzhou-12 mission, ending the history of no Chinese in space stations. China has come from years of watching the US and Russia dominate the science of astronomy to building its own space station, and it has given it a stake in the affairs outside the earth, stoking a new celestial rivalry that the US didn’t see coming.
The taikonauts, as Chinese astronauts are called, Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, started the journey to a new Chinese history on Thursday, through the launch of Shenzhou-12 spacecraft to the space station named the Tiangong, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office.
Since 2011, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been banned under the Wolf Amendment, from cooperating with China due to concerns of espionage, and that has limited how much China can do in space.
The International Space Station (ISS) was a US-Russia project created after the cold war. But now, after more than 20 years in operation, the ISS is retiring and Russia is not interested in renewing its partnership with the US. That creates a potential situation of having only Tiangong. Although the Tiangong is still under construction and is expected to be completed next year, China has extended initiation to foreign astronauts to use the space station upon completion.
The ISS has been in use by 19 partners which widens US chances of finding replacement to Russia. But it would also mean Russia forming a new space station alliance that would likely be China. Already China is teaming up with Russia to build a joint research station on the moon’s south pole by 2035, a facility that will be open to international participation. This also means that a new geopolitical space alliance headed by China is being born.
Failure to form a new partnership that will resuscitate US-led ISS will mean rendering NASA handicapped, as it is not allowed to have dealings with China. NASA’s new administrator Bill Nelson, at a House hearing last month, warned Congress against American complacency in the face of China’s space ambitions. He held up an image taken by the Chinese rover on Mars, called China “a very aggressive competitor,” and lobbied Congress to fund NASA’s plans to bring humans back to the moon. His concern validates the warning of other US observers who had earlier warned the US to be mindful of China’s growing space capabilities.
Although the US still leads in space technology by long miles, China’s economic, technological and military development in the past two decades shows that it has what it takes to rival the US in all fronts, and its space breakthroughs so far show that the sky is not even the limit.