A Y3 Long March-7 launcher with the Tianzhou-2 cargo space probe will be launched on May 29, 2021 in Wenchang in the Chinese province of Hainan from the launch site of the Wenchang space probe.

Yuan Chen | VCG | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China – In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite that sparked a space race with the United States

However, China was nowhere to be seen.

While the US and the Soviet Union were battling for supremacy in this new area, Mao Zedong, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reportedly said, “China can’t even put a potato into space.”

Fast forward more than six decades and President Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, congratulates three astronauts who were dispatched to the country’s own space station earlier this month.

Since Mao’s utterance, China has launched satellites, sent people into space and is now planning to build a base on Mars, achievements and ambitions that Beijing has called the centenary of the CCP’s founding approaches.

President Xi Jinping has stated that China’s “space dream” should overtake all nations and become the leading space power by 2045.

Christopher Newman

Professor of Space Law and Policy, Northumbria University

Space is now another battleground between the US and China amid a broader technological rivalry for supremacy that could have scientific and military ramifications on Earth.

“President Xi Jinping has declared that China’s ‘space dream’ should overtake all nations and become the leading space power by 2045,” said Christopher Newman, professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University in the UK. “All of this adds to China’s ambition to be the only science and technology superpower in the world.”

Why space?

In March, China highlighted space as a “frontier technology” it would focus on and explore the “origin and evolution of the universe”.

But there are other implications as well.

“It is important for China and the US because it can drive technological development” in areas such as “national security and some socio-economic development,” said Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law and research fellow Christoph Beischl.

While experts doubt that there could be a war in space, extraterrestrial activities can support military operations on Earth.

Space performance is also about optics.

Through space exploration for the moon or Mars, “China and the USA are showing their technological sophistication to the domestic audience and the world and increasing their national and international prestige, their national legitimacy and their international influence,” said Mosteshar and Beischl.

China’s space ambitions

Beijing has now set its sights on Mars. China hopes to send its first manned mission to the Red Planet in 2033 after a spacecraft landed there in May.

China has been much more aggressive in filing patents related to space technologies in recent years as it prepares for some of these future missions.

Between January 2000 and June 2021, Chinese companies filed 6,634 patents related to space, including vehicles and equipment, according to data compiled for CNBC by GreyB, a patent research firm. But nearly 90% of those patent applications were filed in the past five and a half years.

Between January 2016 and June 2021, the three most frequent patent applications came from Chinese companies, followed by the US aircraft manufacturer Boeing. It shows how quickly China is hoping to develop the technologies necessary for more advanced space flights.

“The United States remains the overall leader in all areas of space capabilities, but China is quickly completing that lead.

Scott Pace

Director of the Space Policy Institute, Elliott School of International Affairs

Patents are seen as a way to define and control standards for next generation technologies – a goal of China in many different sectors, from telecommunications to artificial intelligence.

“These patents not only represent the level of innovation in China in terms of space, they also represent a well-designed strategy for protecting these innovations in order to gain economic advantage for its space-related technology,” said Vikas Jha, vice president of solutions for intellectual property at GreyB.

“In the near future, most of the patents in cosmonautics will be owned by China (unless others follow suit), which means that China can become a gatekeeper for the use of space technology for both private gamers and governments, not just on strategy on earth, but also to become a superpower in space. “

Space tensions between the US and China

The US and China are already fighting for supremacy in areas from semiconductor development to artificial intelligence. Space will be another frontier, even if the US is currently dominating in this area.

“The United States overall remains ahead in all areas of space capacity, but China is quickly completing that lead,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told CNBC.

“The United States has strong space exploration policies, clear direction, and capable allies and partners,” he said. “The challenge for the US is not so much what China is doing, but how well and how quickly the US is implementing its own plans.”

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But the growing political differences between China and the US can also spread to the space arena.

One example is a disagreement between the two nations last year over what is known as the Artemis Accords, an agreement led by NASA that aims to establish rules for responsible and fair space exploration. Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom have all signed up. China doesn’t.

“The polarization of space activity along geopolitical lines is a key and potentially existential threat to human space activity,” said Newman of Northumbria University.

“For China and its allies, the agreements represent an attempt to bypass the traditional forum for international decision-making,” he added.

“It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to reach the uniform agreements necessary to tackle problems such as space debris, space traffic management and the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources.”