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What's behind Asia's moon race?

China launched its first lunar probe Wednesday. Japan sent an orbiter up last month. India is close behind. It's an economic competition with military undertones.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 2007


As the rocket carrying China's first lunar probe blasted off Wednesday evening, it left in its wake a vapor trail of questions about the nature of Asia's new space race.

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The continent's giants are jockeying for position beyond the earth's atmosphere. Japan launched its own moon orbiter last month. India plans to send a similar satellite up next year. The dawn of the Asian space age, however, has been darkened by suspicion, instead of cooperation.

"This means more competition because of the lingering security concerns all three countries have about one another," says Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Because of the military relevance of space missions and technology, real cooperation will be difficult."

The moon shots, all designed to learn more about the lunar atmosphere and surface, have no military purpose, officials in the three new space powers are quick to point out. But in a field where civilian technological advances can easily be put to military use, nations closely scrutinize each of their neighbors' steps forward.

India is nervous about China's intentions, especialy in the wake of Beijing's test of an antisatellite missile last January. China worries that Japan's missile defense cooperation with the US might threaten its interests, and resents Washington's determination to remain the world's dominant space power. Japan is rattled by North Korea's ballistic-missile capability.

Against that background, Dr. Gill adds, "an Asian NASA sounds a bit far-fetched."

That, argues Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., is because the Asian nations' space programs are largely driven by "technonationalism; they generate pride domestically and they demonstrate prowess internationally."

The chief scientist for China's moon program, Ouyang Ziyuan, said in an interview earlier this year with the official People's Daily: "Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country's comprehensive national power and is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people's cohesion."

Space programs also boost high-tech skills. "China needs its lunar and manned flight projects to nurture the aerospace industry and bring along a cadre of young engineers who will develop its space industry, GPS, Earth observation, and communications, along with military applications," says Gregory Kulacki, a China analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

"The main meaning [of the Chinese moon program] on the industrial side is that we have to set up many new abilities in satellitemaking, long-range telemetry, and so on," says Zhang Wei, a senior official with the Chinese National Space Administration.