With Beijing's first test flight of a spacecraft capable of sending astronauts into orbit, China is telling the West - as well as its home crowd - it should be treated as a great power on the world stage.
When the rocket, dubbed "Divine Ship," touched down Sunday, China immediately set the propaganda machine in motion to tell the world that it had moved a giant step closer toward matching the elite, manned space programs that for three decades have been dominated by Russia and the United States.
The launch, though decades behind, will burnish China's image both at home and in the region. China is the only country in the East to have launched a space capsule.
"China is saying, 'You need to recognize us as a superpower,' " says Cheryl L. Brown, a China scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Until now, only the [former] Soviet Union and the US have sent humans into space ... and by joining them, China is entering the ranks of what a superpower does," adds Ms. Brown.
China's state-controlled press gave extensive coverage to the flight, and said the event marked the nation's rising status in the global community. The high-tech leap in China's space program is aimed at "bolstering national power, defense strength ... [and] international prestige," reported the official China Daily. It added that the success of the program depended on the joint efforts of People's Liberation Army officers and space scientists.
Both American and Chinese scholars say that although Beijing wants to play an increasingly important role in world affairs, that does not mean the country aims to become a military superpower.
Some US politicians are painting China as one of Washington's biggest potential enemies in the next century. Presidential candidate George W. Bush recently said "he wanted to counter Chinese military threats," notes Brown.
"China could become the world's biggest economy" in the next several decades, Brown says. "But a military superpower - I don't know."
Rather, Beijing is probably trying to dispel the perception that it is vulnerable to a technologically advanced US military.
Six months after American jetfighters sent five laser-guided rockets into Beijing's Embassy in Belgrade, which both infuriated and humiliated the leadership here, "China is trying to counter the image of a hi-tech NATO," Brown says.
Washington has the world's largest array of nuclear-tipped missiles. As it mulls plans to build an anti-missile shield that could render China's tiny arsenal ineffective as a deterrent to a nuclear first strike, Beijing's space triumph "could be a warning not to start an arms race in outer space," she says.
A Western diplomat says that in "the bad old days of the cold war, people said the US and the Soviet Union got into a space race to demonstrate their ability to launch ballistic missiles." But Chinese scientists recognize that "part of the reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was the expense of the space race."
He adds the US administration might interpret Beijing's latest "space milestone" as a new opportunity to engage a reforming China that is becoming much more integrated into global structures as it looks toward joining the World Trade Organization.
For the past several years, China has quietly pressed to join the International Space Station that is being built by the US, the European Space Agency, Russia, and Japan.
In the past, China was perceived as a late starter in space endeavors that had little to offer to the major powers, and it was shut out of the ISS club.
But China is demonstrating "that it does have world-class technology, [and] people will be more open to sharing and cooperation" in projects like the space station, the diplomat says. China's take-off in the commercial satellite launching business over the last decade has helped finance and pave the way for its manned space program.
Yuan Jiajun, a test flight official at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, says that when research on the launch is complete, "We will hold several more test flights before actually sending a man into space."
In a paper presented at a 1998 conference in Beijing, Mr. Yuan said that the initial phase of lunar exploration was partly triggered by the US-USSR cold war competition. But with the end of that rivalry, it is in "the common interests of mankind to forge cooperation in deep space exploration."
Yuan says Beijing's push to send its first astronaut into space is just the first step in a more ambitious program to help found human colonies on the moon and Mars, and then extend man's reach beyond the solar system.
He says China is now conducting "feasibility studies on a lunar probe and a Mars probe," but adds that the planet should pool its resources to set up extraterrestrial bases.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society