political revue


Year XLV, 2003, Number 3, Page 169



In the first half of the 1960s France and China, within a few years of each other, joined the limited number of countries with a nuclear arsenal. But this fact did not mean that those two countries carried the same weight on a global scale. China was in fact demonstrating that it had the size and the resources to assert itself as a regional and indeed a world power, whilst France was trying to defend its own national sovereignty from the influence of the superpowers on the European continent. After 40 years, in 2003, China has become the third country, after the USA and Russia, to be able to independently send teams of astronauts into space, and the European Union has challenged the USA in the field of satellite systems.[1] Yet again the two facts are only seemingly comparable. The first Chinese space voyage confirmed that China is by now able to compete with American superpower in the field of new technologies and in geopolitical influence: the European Satellite project Galileo is only a commercial gamble for the reasons that we shall give later.
After the fall of the USSR China sped up the stages of its transition from a developing country to an emerging power. The importance of China at the international level has been growing more and more in the management of bilateral and multilateral relations during the ASEAN and APEC summits, in the management of the USA-North Korea crisis, in international treaties on the limitation of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.[2] Following the terrorist attack of 11 of September 2001 in New York China asserted its role in Central Asia, presenting itself as the only credible guarantor of the stability of the region. This is proven by the fact that in a brief time it resolved all the main land disputes with its neighbours, among which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Russia, Tajikistan and Vietnam. Its foreign policy did not overlook the European Union, with which China promoted the start of the biannual Euro-Asian summits, and to which it offered financial aid to develop the European space project Galileo: it is a relationship of collaboration which is favourable to China in the medium-term since, on the basis of the comparison of current development trends of their respective space policies, China will surpass Europe by 2010 in its capacity for yearly launches of satellites into space, and not the other way round.[3] Certainly the problems that China must still tackle and resolve, in order to help almost one and a half billion Chinese people achieve a quality of life similar to that of the citizens of developed countries, are enormous. But its constant growth in production, not only in the industrial sectors typical of developing countries, but also more advanced sectors such as electronics, is a reality.[4] Economically it is foreseen that China will become the third biggest trading partner of the USA by the end of the year and the second biggest world market in absolute terms by 2020. The question that everyone asks themselves by now is no longer whether China will reach the USA, but when.[5] In the effort to slow down this progression, the most conservative exponents of the Bush Administration are not hiding their temptation to drag China into a technological-military contest similar to that engaged with the USSR and won.
All these signals only help to confirm that we are facing a widening gap between the Chinese and European development processes. A new pole is emerging at the global level, and this pole is not Europe, but China, which is preparing to start the journey already made during the last century by the USA and Russia. The political motives behind the decision of the Chinese government to invest considerable resources in the space race are clear, and go beyond purely technical and scientific aspects.
Amongst the advanced technological sectors, space exploration has a particular strategic importance, not so much as regards the launchers, that is to say the construction of vehicles used to put satellites, space modules and stations into orbit, which by now are available to many States including developing ones, but especially as regards the integration of satellite services into the production, organisational and military systems of individual States. Thus in the 1990s there was a true revolution in this field. Until then in fact space exploration was confined to two applications operating separately and mainly for a limited number of privileged users: remote sensing for military and/or scientific purposes and telecommunications. The progressive integration of the Internet in satellite communications systems and the possibility of storing an ever increasing amount of data in ever more capable and universally accessible memory banks at lower and lower costs, removed those restrictions and those distinctions, favouring the birth and dissemination of global information services available to any user of the Internet or mobile telephones.[6] During the 1990s the USA gained a monopoly of the control of the system, and the Pentagon may decide at any moment, as it did in fact during the crises of the wars in the Balkans and Iraq, to suspend or disrupt commercial services offered by the USA via satellite.[7] Aware of the risks of leaving the USA to maintain leadership in this field, China ensured its development of an independent satellite system, despite having decided to financially support the European satellite project Galileo as we have said. Even France and Germany became aware of the enormous advantage acquired by the USA, and have strongly supported, within the European Union, the need to launch an independent European programme, which in fact gave birth to Galileo itself. As is well known, the USA, making use of the divisions between Europeans within the ESA, managed to delay the launch of the European service until 2008, and thus to use the time gained to renew their own GPS satellite constellation and set up a new generation of the technology, already more competitive than the European system.[8] But there is more.
The Galileo project, born out of the confederal policy of the European States, came to light thanks all the partners in the project accepting the restrictions imposed by Great Britain to retain it a service only for civilian purposes without any European control and subject to that of national governments. But who does such a choice help all in all? Let us suppose that the Galileo system had already been active at the time when the Bush administration decided to intervene in Bosnia and then in Afghanistan and then in Iraq: Faced with a predictable request by America to suspend or limit access to satellite data supplied by Galileo to any enemies of the USA, which body, agency, European department would have taken the decision to obey or resist this request (and in this case with which instruments and managed by whom)? The answer is obvious: there is no power in Europe able to impose its will on questions of this nature. In the official documents of the European commission, in the communiqués of European councils, in the debates at the European Parliament, there is no answer to this type of problem, just as there is no reference to the problem of the framework of power necessary to create at the European level in order to manage a space exploration policy in a credible way. At best those documents limit themselves to presenting aseptic scenarios which suggest the idea that everything depends on the will or otherwise by the States to invest more in this field. A recent document from the European Commission concludes that, with current resources, “Europe does not fully guarantee independence vis-à-vis technology and access to space”, but that a leap forward would be possible “with a growth rate [Author’s note: in expenditure for space technologies] higher than the global growth rate of the EU economy”.[9] It is well-known that China has so far spent infinitely less on its space programmes than the Europeans, however no one can doubt its capacity to maintain its independent access to these technologies.
The fact is that the political problems that the Europeans have so far refused to sort out are rapidly coming back to haunt them: the Europeans can no longer afford to make false steps. As the debate on the European Constitution also showed first inside the Convention and then at the Intergovernmental Conference, instead of resolving the crucial problem of its political division, Europe re-proposed co-operation projects more or less reinforced in various fields, including defence and foreign policy.
If Europeans renounce the creation of the European federal State in the immediate future, whichever project or programme they adopt in space exploration, they will continue simply to dissipate resources, without being able to control in any way their future or to influence the decisions of those old and new continental poles around which the world is organising itself.
Franco Spoltore

[1] In October 2003 China successfully sent astronauts into space on board the space module Shenzou. The European Union confirmed that they wanted the satellite system Galileo to be in service by 2008.
[2] The article by Evan S. Medeiros and Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Diplomacy”, in Foreign Affairs, November-December 2003, lists the numerous diplomatic successes won by China in the last decade.
[3] Already in 2001 the ex-director of the ESA Roger-Maurice Bonnet, commenting on China’s foreseeable leap forward in space travel, was asking himself if it still made sense for Europeans to keep the ESA running (“China: the Next Space Superpower”, in Scientific American, October 2003).
[4] See the data presented by David Hale and Lyric Hughes Hale in “China Takes Off”, Foreign Affairs, November-December 2003.
[5] Martin Wolf’s comment, “The Long March to Prosperity”, which appeared in the Financial Times, 8 December 2003, provides plenty of data to document the economic efforts that China is carrying out.
[6] Bruce T. Robinson, in his article “How the U.S. Army’s New Satellite Tracking System Helped Avert Friendly Fire and Lift the Fog of War”, which appeared in IEEE Spectrum, October 2003, repeats part of the testimonies brought to the USA Congress by Pentagon representatives after the capture of Baghdad. These testimonies had been requested by Congress precisely to verify whether the expenses incurred in order to develop American satellite links had been effective or not.
[7] The military locations of this technology have profoundly influenced, since the beginning, during the 1980s, the development of both the American GPS satellite system, and the Soviet-Russian GLONASS system.
[8] The article “Galileo”, which appeared on Rivista Italiana Difesa (Italian Defence Review) in November 2003, provides an exhaustive description of the technical aspects of the European-American contest in this field.
[9] European Commission, White Paper - Space: a New European Frontier for an Expanding Union. An Action Plan for Implementing the European Space Policy, November 2003.



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