"In some ways, this will underscore the extent to which China is ahead of India and Japan. This will be layered atop ongoing tensions among them: Beijing-Tokyo (the Senkakus/Diaoyutai incident of last year) and Beijing-New Delhi (ongoing tensions about border demarcations),” Cheng said.
With New Delhi indicating an interest in anti-satellite capabilities, Cheng noted that Beijing's ability to sustain people in space, and associated military technology benefits—not to mention the expansion of their Tianlian data-relay satellite network nominally needed for piloted space telemetry—will be a sign of China’s edge over India in space.
Cheng’s forecast: “I think the next decade, depending on everyone’s economic development, may well see a heating up of the Asian space competition.”
Space race memories
There are those hungry for a walk down memory lane to a 1960s-like "space race"—this time between the U.S. and China—a state of affairs that could fuel America's space esprit de corps.
That idea appears to be a non-starter, suggested Roger Launius, senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
The Chinese have only flown three piloted missions since 2003 "and there are really no aggressive plans that I have seen, although there has been some reporting in the media about the possibility of a piloted Chinese moon mission. How real that is, I think, is an open question," Launius said.
Absent a serious effort by the Chinese, Launius doesn't think too many American leaders will be too concerned about increasing American funding for human spaceflight.
"Of course, having said that, if China landed on the moon, went to Tranquility Base, picked up our flag, brought it back and sold it on eBay, I think Americans would be very excited," Launius suggested.
There seems to be "enormous opportunity," Launius said, and also some "real concern" in the emergence of China as a space power.
"The opportunity comes from an increasingly capable China that might be enjoined in the international effort to create a beachhead in Earth orbit and extend human presence beyond LEO. The cooperative possibilities are intoxicating as we consider a hopeful and peaceful future exploring and using space," Launius said.
"The other side of that coin, of course, is the national security aspects of space technology," he said. "The rising capability of China has made American national security leaders nervous."
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