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How China's Space Ambitions Fit Into Its Larger Geopolitical Strategy


China has landed a rover on the far side of the moon. That is a first for any nation and what you might call a giant leap for China's space program. China lags behind the U.S. and Russia in space technology, but it has long had its eye on this frontier. A few months before he became China's leader in 2013, President Xi Jinping said the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger.

Well, to tell us more about this dream and what it means for the U.S., I am joined by Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College. Welcome.


KELLY: So we're used to Americans being the first to do things in space, and we're used to Russia usually being the competition. So let me start by asking, how significant is it for China to become the first country to land on the far side of the moon?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, China has been the country playing catch-up, and so it's been very conscious of trying to incorporate things that give it a place in the record books because China understands that the prestige a country garners from technical capabilities often translates into geostrategic influence. So they've incorporated things like landing on the fire side of the moon. And in the future, it will be combined with their human spaceflight program to announce - officially announce a Chinese astronaut going to the moon.

KELLY: So the next voice transmission we hear from the moon may well be speaking Mandarin.

JOHNSON-FREESE: Mandarin, yes.

KELLY: What kind of disparity is there in space between U.S. and Chinese capabilities particularly when we're talking about defense and potential military ambitions?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, again, the Chinese are playing catch-up. And as an example, China has developed maneuverable satellites which are seen as threatening because they can maneuver to get out of the way of debris. But if you can maneuver to do that, you potentially can maneuver to hit another satellite and therefore be a weapon. But we have maneuverable satellites as well. So because of this dual-use nature, pretty much anything China does in space will be considered threatening by the United States.

KELLY: So what do you see as the national security implications for the United States?

JOHNSON-FREESE: For the United States, it's imperative that we stay ahead. And we do that not by trying to keep the Chinese back because physics and engineering is the same in Beijing as it is in Palo Alto. So I think it's - the imperative is on us to keep advancing forward in terms of space security policy. I am very wary of moving towards the overt weaponization of space, which I think is where the United States is headed, because there's just too much potential for misunderstandings and escalations in ways that would not be beneficial to any country.

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, people talk about the fog of war here on Earth. There's always the uncertainty of knowing what your adversaries intent is. I can only imagine that would be multiplied exponentially if you're dealing with communications from space.


KELLY: So as you look out into the future a year from now, five years from now, 10, are there specific mileposts you'll be watching for?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, the Chinese have laid out very specific plans for both their Chang'e and their Shenzhou program. So we know, for example, that the Shenzhou program will culminate with a permanently crewed space station about the same time that the International Space Station may be reaching the end of its operations. And so the Chinese space station will become the de facto international space station.

And again, I think this is all going to come together within the next three to five years for the Chinese to announce a human spaceflight program back to the moon. They will face competition not just from NASA but, I think, from the private companies SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others who have announced similar intentions long-term or short-term.

KELLY: Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, thanks so much.

JOHNSON-FREESE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.