The term “space race” entered our lexicon in the 1960s to describe the competitive nature of the space programs of the US and the Soviet Union, who were not the world's only space powers but certainly the dominant ones. The term fit the situation well. There were clearly defined objectives and milestones for their space programs. There was also a clearly defined struggle for hegemony on earth. Metrics were easy to define and observe.
Decades later, analysts struggle with the term “space race” and its application to a handful of rapidly rising space programs in Asia. Some find it uncomfortable to use the words, as they bring the bitterness of the Cold War with them. It's also fair to say that we are dealing with a different time, a different region, and a vastly different geopolitical context. It's wrong to just crudely map a 60s-style paradigm to the present.
Nevertheless, there is a space race in Asia. It is taking place among Asian powers and the world at large.
The latter stages of the 20th century witnessed a rapid and astonishing rise of industrial, technological and economic power across Asia. Countries that had been defeated and colonized by the technologically superior powers of the West were rising. They were determined to lift themselves out of poverty and also guard themselves against the mistakes of the past. Rivalries within Asia, both recent and ancient, have driven some of this progress.
Asian space programs have been fueled by these developments for decades, although it largely escaped the attention of the wider world. The programs were relatively modest in comparison to their superpower rivals, and were focused on practical outcomes. Asia needed satellites to map farmland and connect dispersed peoples through telecommunications. There would be no robots to Mars, at least initially.
Thus, China, India and Japan ran world-class space programs for a long period without arousing much interest in the West. Japan's strategic and political ties to America made it a partner in the International Space Station. Otherwise, there was only a modest degree of interaction beyond Asia itself. The turn of the millennium has escalated Asian spaceflight to fever pitch. Analysts can no longer deny that an Asian 'space race' is in full swing.
China launched an astronaut in 2003. Recently, Beijing has slowly confirmed that it plans to land astronauts on the moon around 2030 (as this analyst has long professed to so many selectively deaf ears in the West). The rise of China's astronaut program sent a normally calm and methodical Indian space program into panic. Within weeks, an Indian astronaut capsule will fly a short test mission. Yet India lacks a reliable rocket to launch astronauts. China waited until it had mastered rocketry before developing its Shenzhou spacecraft. India seems to be putting the cart before the horse, which could lead to safety problems in the future.
Elsewhere in Asia, we have a South Korean satellite program that builds on that nation's strong electronics base. Korea uses its own satellites for domestic applications, but they are launched on foreign rockets. A Korean astronaut, Soyeon Yi, flew to the International Space Station and became one of South Korea's most successful cultural ambassadors. But the program also reflects panic. South Korea ran a haphazard and ill-managed program to develop its own satellite launch vehicle. This involved a crude attempt to label a Russian-built “Angara” booster as a Korean rocket. When the rocket developed technical trouble on the launchpad, the Koreans could make no progress until parts were delivered from Russia. South Korea now speaks of grandiose plans to build a truly indigenous launch vehicle and land a robot on the moon. There's a long timeline for these programs and it is not clear if some of these plans will outlive the Park Administration.
North Korea has attracted considerable attention for reasons that don't need to be repeated here. Ironically, North Korea beat South Korea for the title of the first indigenously launched satellite on the peninsula.
Space programs are found in most Southeast Asian nations with mature economies and technological bases. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and others have satellites in orbit. Some even build their own.
The principal actor in this saga beyond Asia is the US. It is crude but not inaccurate to say that America's space program is flagging, and China sees itself in a position to challenge US dominance in space. A Chinese Space Station could begin operations as the International Space Station enters its twilight years. China has plans for robot missions to Mars. It is developing new boosters capable of supporting astronaut flights to the moon. Yet America is simply unprepared to deal with China in space, and has enforced astonishingly hostile policies towards Beijing. Co-operation is taboo; Chinese scientists have even been excluded from mundane scientific conferences. The wider international community looks on, bewildered.
This convoluted situation will evolve rapidly and unpredictably over the next two decades, which will be critical for spaceflight and international relations as a whole. Much of Asia's spaceflight boom is driven by practical needs. Everyone uses satellites. But there's also a quest for prestige on a domestic and an international scale. Despite the fact that Asian governments are less keen to openly speak of a "space race," they are clearly all engaged in one.