Published: 12:12, May 30, 2023 | Updated: 12:12, May 30, 2023
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Cooperation, not race, in space
By Quentin Parker


Fierce rivalry in human endeavor is as long as the history of humanity itself and often spills over into something more destructive and dangerous. Fortunately, this is not the only human story. Collaboration, cooperation and constructive alliances have also played major roles in the emergence of the modern world that has also been shaped by war.

The latest examples of global cooperation include shared research, data and even technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shows that during a threat to humankind as a whole, large parts of the world can actually come together to take timely actions, even if only briefly, to tackle a common threat.

The same is happening with climate change and the accompanying environmental degradation. Major countries are trying to find shared practical solutions to such problems so as to build a better world. The aim is to enable humankind to mitigate the worst effects of global warming that are becoming increasingly frightening.

In this context, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are leading the initiatives to address this most pressing of issues. Despite its drawbacks, the UNFCCC remains the best international "umbrella" body to debate, reason, act and deliver for humankind and a better and more eco-friendly world.

China is ready to play its full part in not just the UNFCCC but also bilateral and multilateral programs in order to foster beneficial outcomes for all sides across multiple fields, including space. Many non-aligned countries are beginning to see the wisdom and advantages of closer cooperation in space and other fields, from agriculture to infrastructure and transport to resource management, for the benefit of all.

The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative is a prime example of such win-win intent and project. Despite Western rhetoric, I believe China is earnest in its intent about facilitating international cooperation including in space exploration. I have seen this many times over the past eight years since I arrived in Hong Kong, and visited the Chinese mainland. This is the feedback I have got from individual scientists in my field of space research, university leadership teams and city and local government representatives in many mainland cities.

Their common feature is that they want to foster talent and use it, work with it, build on it, and even share their research results to promote cooperation.

As a multipolar world is emerging, the need to work together, not against each other, is becoming increasingly important. It is necessary to appropriately respond to this call if we want to neutralize the efforts of the vested interests to subtly and not so subtly prise us further apart and into rigid camps, where the risks of and calls for war that follow grow.

We need to make serious and sincere efforts together, and not against each other, as required, for example, to effectively fight climate change.

I believe that at the heart of the efforts to facilitate global cooperation in areas of mutual interest, for genuine win-win global collaboration, is the issue of building trust. Not just trust in each partner's intent, but trust in the promise to allocate adequate resources for joint scientific and technological collaboration.

Working together on major research projects of global significance is one way of building mutual trust, which we need to promote prosperity among the human race and avoid destructive outcomes. When you have trust it is a most precious commodity that can drive everything forward with confidence.

Indeed, this is already happening in the field of fusion power research in which China and the United States are major partners in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor currently under construction in Southern France. This promises to deliver clean, limitless energy. The high-level scientific partnership between major powers can be done again in the field of space exploration and exploitation.

The impending demise of the International Space Station (originally slated for 2024 but now extended) and the emergence of the Chinese Space Station, I believe, provide an excellent opportunity to promote cooperation.

As an aside, the US Congress's move to stop China from participating in the International Space Station has backfired, I would say. But that has only served to turbo-charge China's capacity to work on and complete an even stronger space program. Today, China is a leading space power. The Chinese Space Station itself and much of its broader space programs, have always been open for international collaboration for the benefit of all humankind as the white paper published in 2021 makes very clear.

However, just like research on fusion, space activities, especially if carried out on a grand scale, the proposed moon bases and large telescopes like the James Webb are extremely cost-intensive. No country alone has a monopoly on talents, capacity, capability ideas and the infrastructure needed to forge a future for humankind in space.

A renewed call for global cooperation and participation in the Chinese Space Station, perhaps even including an open invitation for the US to formally join as a partner, could be a game-changer, promoting mutual trust between China and the US.

Advancing the frontiers of scientific research in microgravity and exploring the wonders of the universe through next-generation space telescopes via global collaboration, especially between the US and China, can form a non-controversial scientific scaffold for generating mutual trust. This can have significant knock-on benefits in broader endeavors and diplomacy. Working together at the highest to lowest international levels on the basis of mutual trust forges friendship, fosters further collaborative projects and de-escalates tensions and harmful rivalries.

The US should not fear China's emergence. Instead, it should cash in on the opportunities and markets that this emergence brings for win-win collaboration, co-operation and competition.

As Chinese astronaut Nie Haisheng has said, "Space is a family affair; many countries are developing their space programs and China, as a big country, should make our own contributions in this field."

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

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.