Space diplomacy: A better way to combat China's challenge

Space diplomacy: A better way to combat China's challenge
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The United States and China are locked into an intensifying contest for global leadership, vision, and influence. The stakes in this contest could not be higher. Our economy, our global access to markets, and, most alarmingly, our leadership, values, and vision as a society are all in play and being challenged.

Whereas the Cold War was a competition over ideology, the growing U.S./Sino competition may well be about position. At one level this positional contest may be about markets: Who can bring the most innovative technology to the most markets most quickly. At a more serious level, it may be about location, location, location: Who controls the key chokepoints and routes that influence global trade, information flow, and connectedness.

The outcome may decide whether your email goes to Beijing before going anywhere else.

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One of those key chokepoints is space. Most people don’t think about it, but every time you ask your phone for directions, every time you make a withdrawal from an ATM, every time you watch a football game, every time you watch the weather, you are leveraging the United States’ position in space. It’s always on — an American birthright.

The Chinese are working tirelessly to change this. Whether you serve in the executive or legislative branches in Washington, D.C., work on Wall Street, or live on Main Street, you should be alarmed.

Since 1980, China has constantly achieved its 10, 15, 25, and 30-year goals in space. From their first satellite launch to the creation of a space-cargo project to testing reproductive capabilities in orbit or their landing on the far side of the moon recently, China is acting to monetize and colonize space. As the whole of Chinese society enthusiastically embraces a space-faring future, even celebrating an annual Space Day.

Some of these aspirations may seem harmless. For example, putting 5G wireless (which is like being connected to a cable modem all the time — think 4Gx100) in space years ahead of the United States seems innocuous enough. In fact, it is not. By beating the United States in key areas, Chinese industry (fronts for the Chinese Communist Party) effectively capture markets and lock-in or “gate” populations toward their standards and their networks. It is a recipe for a lost U.S. lead in the technology sector.  Worse, it could enable new military capabilities through cyberspace that could affect all of us here in the United States. That’s the kind of competition we are entering.

Although the Chinese are racing ahead, the U.S. still enjoys the high position in space.  We’re in real danger of losing it, however. Recognition of the lost lead won’t be a slap like Sputnik or Gagarin overflights of the Cold War. Instead, it will be like the frog who realizes his fate too late once the water starts boiling.

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To avoid this, the United States needs a more robust national focus on space and a strategy that enables the diplomatic use of space as a whole-of-society approach. What if, in addition to GPS, the United States and its allies provided 5G global broadband access with assured freedom of access anywhere in the world for pennies? What if the United States brought life-giving payloads and personnel to bear to within a half-meter anywhere in the world within about 30 minutes of launch? What if the United States underwrote the security of allied spacecraft and managed collection of global space debris? All of this is within easy technological reach today. Enabling technologies such as fully-reusable launch vehicles will increasingly expand this capability as costs begin, in time, to approach those of aviation. As these technologies expand our horizons, they also expand our capacity to develop more sensible, lower-cost, and manageable diplomatic and military strategies to sustainably support freedom.

As space-power comes of age and new strategies are developed, the U.S. must look to history for the wisdom that can help shape the future. We should prioritize help to those willing to walk the crucible required for an enduring form of freedom.

We should always extend the goodwill of the U.S. as we carry life deeper into our solar system; and where tyranny tries to crush the hopes of those daring to cast off oppression — we should stand not in front, but beside them as they bear the greater burden of their struggle and, therefore, more highly prize their liberty.

Guided by this wisdom, we must invest in the space-based capabilities that will enable us to be a champion of freedom on earth and beyond. And we must invest now.

The clever use of space-based diplomacy can usher in an age of unbounded growth and hope as the U.S. contends as both a benevolent actor and intelligent supporter of freedom. The race is already underway; will we be a contender or a spectator?

Lt. Gen. Steven L. Kwast is the Commander of Air Education and Training Command responsible for the training, professional development, and doctrine for the Department of the Air Force. The Command employs more than 50,000 military and civilian personnel in support of these activities including the development of America’s space strategy.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not represent the official positions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.