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Published: 02:55, November 02, 2023 | Updated: 09:30, November 03, 2023
Cooperation in space could be next step for Belt and Road
By Quentin Parker
Published:02:55, November 02, 2023 Updated:09:30, November 03, 2023 By Quentin Parker

The third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, marking the 10th anniversary of the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was held in Beijing on Oct 18, where leaders and representatives from 130 countries gathered to participate in various activities that produced 458 cooperation documents. 

Admittedly, this event came at a challenging time. It was held against a major, devastating and prolonged conflict in Europe and the Israel-Hamas conflict. Apart from this, there is the existential climate emergency. This desperately needs our full, global attention. Unfortunately, it is being drowned out now by these other pressing issues. When combined with the general cost-of-living crisis affecting large swathes of the developed world, it is understandable but seriously regrettable that our attentions are currently largely elsewhere at precisely the time they are needed for this severe global concern. Indeed, wars will pale against what awaits us as a species unless we can get a grip on the battle we must all wage against severe human-induced climate change. There is no time to lose.

Can the BRI help?

Indeed, the BRI was a little smaller and aimed to be greener this particular anniversary year. It is nevertheless a time to reflect on the many successes of this remarkable initiative intended for global good, poverty abatement, and beneficial development in less privileged regions. 

Indeed, the extensive BRI road, rail, and bridge infrastructure being rolled out across many developing countries has the potential to transform millions of lives positively. Much is based on Chinese investment and expertise and on-the-ground assistance. These are directed to local and long-term logistical and infrastructure solutions that provide greener and more efficient conduits for trade, travel and sustainable development.

Sadly, this key BRI event failed to attract much Western interest for various reasons, including the rising geopolitical tensions of the last couple of years, fueled mainly by so-called great power rivalry and the real risks of falling into the Thucydides Trap, whereby one country’s hegemony is threatened by another’s emergence. This must be avoided at all costs.

From a Western perspective, attendance at an international get-together by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a minister representing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister and a staunch critic of the European Union (despite Hungary having been a member since 2004) is also problematic. However, outside the United Nations, such international events present valuable opportunities for behind-the-scenes dialogue to improve things.

I would suggest that the attendance of these countries’ leaders is a simple expression of China’s broad inclusivity regardless of wider perceived negative issues and despite the specific China-Russia partnership that has been emerging. 

One assumes that lack of attendance from any significant Western power is their own choice and not from a lack of opportunity to attend the celebration of and participation in such a powerful program. Indeed, back in 2019, the BRI was hailed by the then-UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, as having “tremendous potential to spread prosperity and sustainable development”. His words then are no less valid now than when they were first spoken and arguably are even more critical today.

In this vein of international win-win cooperation, I would like to explore another potential aspect of the BRI diorama — a BRI for space.

China has rapidly developed a sophisticated space mission capability, as evidenced by its successful ventures to the moon and Mars, and the awe-inspiring Tiangong space station over the last few years. This is being supplemented by the emergence of a commercial arm and the development of a commercial launch center in Hainan province to exploit low Earth orbit and beyond. Russia also has a mature space exploration and science program track record. In addition, India is rapidly emerging as a major spacefaring nation, as demonstrated by its recent highly cost-effective lander and rover mission to the southern lunar polar region. Brazil operates a spaceport at Alcantara, and a launch site at Barreira do Inferno, the largest and most prominent space agency in Latin America, so has serious interest. 

These BRICS countries have the power, potential, and prospects to launch a collaborative BRI for space. I call it the Mission-oriented Research Targeting Agriculture and Resources program — or MORTAR for fun. Yes, it is a contrived acronym, but it encapsulates that with BRICS and MORTAR, you can create a solid and enduring edifice for the betterment of much of humanity using ground-to-space capabilities.

With ground transport infrastructure built or in train that represents a primary BRI output across the globe — based largely on Chinese development funding — there is also a pressing need for associated infrastructure in space.

Rich countries have a wealth of powerful satellites that furnish sophisticated data for telecommunications, the internet, remote sensing, and related capabilities for monitoring their country’s cities, resources, and surroundings. 

Such infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped across many of the poorer nations in Southeast Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world. 

High-quality, high-cadence, hyper-spectral imaging of small and larger scale ground environments in these countries can provide vital monitoring of crops, habitat loss, environmental degradation, deforestation, desertification and pollution, and help both manage and more effectively and benignly exploit the resources they have to better the lives of their people. 

So the BRI could now also look up and provide global views for a refreshed Belt and Road.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong, the director of its Laboratory for Space Research, and vice-chairman of the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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