As the two countries jockey for economic, technological, geopolitical and even ideological superiority on Earth, space has become a natural extension — and crucial frontier — in their great power competition.
And due to the inherent dual-use nature of space technologies, what’s at stake extends far beyond mere scientific prestige and global standing. In addition to national defence, so much of our life on Earth — from digital communications to navigation — depends on satellites in space.
That particular breakthrough prompted NASA’s new administrator Bill Nelson to warn against American complacency in face of China’s space ambitions.
Despite its advancements, China’s space technology still lags behind the US. But China’s space program is flush with political and monetary support from the ruling Communist Party, which views its success as a key measure of its intentional standing and domestic legitimacy.
That exclusion has at least in part spurred Beijing to build its own space station, the Tiangong, which is expected to be completed by the end of next year — two years before the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024.
If the US and its international partners do not decide to extend the ISS’s operational life, China’s Tiangong space station may soon become the only crewed outpost in orbit — one that NASA astronauts are barred from joining by US law.
While the ISS was primarily a US-Russian venture born out of the ashes of the Cold War, China’s Tiangong is being built amid talks of a new Cold War. And it is likely that in the years to come, alliances in space will increasingly mirror the geopolitical lines on Earth.
Neither China nor Russia is a signatory.