China may already be the second-largest manufacturing power on Earth and possesses a highly advanced industrial infrastructure. It now has more than $2.3 trillion in excess foreign exchange holdings - adding another $300 billion just in the past nine months, equal the entire gross product of Argentina. And China’s top universities are rolling in research money, possess the latest laboratory equipment, and have their pick of the most brilliant students.
In 2005, China produced 351,537 engineers, with at least a bachelor’s degree, nearly double the United States figure of 137,437; and a healthy chunk of China top engineers get their doctoral training at American universities. For example, of the 99 doctorates in engineering awarded by the University of Virginia from August 2007 to August 2008, one third - 33 - went to scholars from Chinese universities.
To be sure, China’s imaginative and capable aerospace engineers have devised quite workable spacefaring designs, and their access to Russia’s space science has helped accelerate their progress. And what the Chinese can’t buy from the Russians, or learn at America’s top universities, they can still pilfer from U.S. industry.
In July, Dongfan Chung, a former stress engineer with Boeing, was convicted of economic espionage involving 300,000 pages of sensitive data, including information about the space shuttle and the fueling system for America’s biggest booster rocket, the Delta IV. In his ruling, the judge in the case noted that Mr. Chung, a U.S. citizen, had decided “to serve the [People’s Republic of China], which he proudly proclaimed as his ‘motherland.’ ” In 2008, Shu Quan-sheng, an American physicist living in Virginia was convicted of transferring to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army details of liquid hydrogen tanks for the Delta IV.
This combination of financial wealth, educational excellence, advanced technology and a penchant for plundering intellectual property has enabled China’s space program to develop swiftly. In 2003, China’s gained entry into the exclusive manned-space club previously restricted to the United States and Russia. By 2008, Chinese astronauts were taking space walks and buzzing tiny “BX-1” nano-satellites around their space capsules, a technology that puts them on the cutting edge of “space situational awareness” that America’s military space assets still lack.
Beijing’s political and military leaders alike foresee “competition” in space with the United States. They certainly plan to seize the high ground of low-Earth orbit and then will likely move to the even higher ground of moon landings perhaps before this decade is out. Judging from the past behavior of China’s state-owned aerospace firms especially in their unseemly eagerness to proliferate ballistic missile technology to rogue states, it is unlikely that Mr. Obama can count on much “cooperation” with China in space - except on China’s terms.
c John J. Tkacik, a retired Foreign Service officer, was chief of China analysis in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the Clinton administration.
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