What Future Does a Rising China Hold for the U.S. in Asia?

Nowhere has the world picture changed more significantly in the past decade than in Asia, and nowhere has that change been more important than in China.

Nowhere has the world picture changed more significantly in the past decade than in Asia, and nowhere has that change been more important than in China.

The most striking aspect of China's development is its spectacular economic growth, currently nine percent a year. For those who have prospered, Rolls Royce recently opened its first dealership in China. Chinese goods, like the cheap motorcycles that are flooding Indonesian towns, have penetrated the Asian market places while Chinese investments in Asia have soared over twenty percent a year. At the same time, China's share of foreign investments in Asia has leaped from 20 percent in 1990 to 80 percent today. Chinese companies, as well as buying more and more goods from Asian producers, are buying assets from U.S. and European investors. In Indonesia, China has bought oil and gas fields owned by the Spanish company Repsol-YPF and, last month, acquired the Indonesian assets of the Devon Energy Corporation. The biggest investments, like these, have been in oil and other raw materials.

Economic growth requires increased energy supplies and China has been reaching across the continent to obtain them. On a state visit to Kazakhstan this year, President Hu Jintao signed an agreement for the China National Petroleum Corporation and KazMunayGaz to build a pipeline running from the Caspian port of Atyrau to China's northwestern province of Xinjiang. The line may be carrying up to 3.5 million barrels of crude oil daily to China by 2015.

In neighboring Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov supports Beijing's repression of the restive Turkic population of China's northwestern province of Xinjiang, also known as East Turkistan. In the context of this cozy relationship, Chinese companies are talking about building a pipeline parallel to the one from Kazakstan to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's reserves to fuel China's industries.

Across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan is Azerbaijan, which is also rich in oil. There the China Petroleum and Chemical Corp, better known as Sinopec, has an $80 million deal to develop the estimated seven million tons of oil in the Pirsaat oil field south of Baku. China also has a 30 percent stake in two other considerable Azeri oil fields.

China's quest for energy is not limited to this planet. A main goal of its space program is to extract energy from the moon, something the Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison thought of in 1986. Helium-3, also known as astrofuel, is found in abundance in the Moon's soil. It is the most efficient known source of power -- 99 percent of its energy can be converted into electricity. The moon has an estimated reserve of 1.1 billion tons of He3, and it would take only 28 tons, about the capacity of the U.S. Space Shuttle, to supply the entire electrical demand of the U.S. for a year.

Last March, Luan Enjie, a senior official of the China National Aerospace Administration, disclosed plans for lunar exploration with a view to exploiting the Moon's He3 deposits. The Moon, he said, has become the focal point where, in the future, aerospace powers would contend for strategic resources. "We must seize the opportunity," he asserted, "and start China's lunar exploration project as soon as possible."

When the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry visited a Russian cosmonaut training facility last year, they found Chinese there, training in extra-vehicular activity. According to Robert S. Walker, writing in The Washington Times last May, "You do not train for EVAs if you are doing simple orbital missions. EVAs are typically related to space-based construction work." Mining lunar He3 would require such work.

The Chinese space program is not only about obtaining energy from the Moon. It also has a military dimension. Last month, the People's Liberation Army Daily spelt out a theory of battlefield supremacy that declared, "Space is the Commanding Point for the Information Battlefield." The philosophy behind China's development of space technology is to neutralize satellites and so impair the enemy's capacity to use precision weapons. It hardly needs saying that precision guided munitions are at the forefront of U.S. weaponry, as recently demonstrated in Iraq.

Beijing's dual use space program fits in with the rapid modernization underway of its 2.3 million armed forces, something that has made its neighbors uneasy. Beijing's diplomacy strives to reassure and show that it is a good neighbor (with the exception of its periodic warnings to Taiwan of dire consequences should Taipei seek full, formal independence.) Hence it has improved relations with all the countries on its borders and settled territorial disputes with Laos and Kazakhstan.  There was joint naval exercise with India last week and in October with Pakistan.

Beijing has called for a regional conference to step up communication between the Asian militaries. It has set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia and the Central Asian states to talk over security issues, notably the commonly shared problem of Islamist extremists. It is helping Vietnam by repairing a rail line that links China to the port of Haiphong; and it has played a moderating role in the question of North Korea 's nuclear weapons program. The results have been gratifying for Beijing; the Asian view of China is increasingly positive as indicated by the enthusiastic reception given to President Hu by national leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand in October.