China has issued an open invitation to all countries interested in participating in its planned orbital station in a bid to establish itself as a leading international space power and expand its influence.
This step is especially significant at a time when NASA, the U.S. space agency, and its partners are trying to decide how long to maintain the International Space Station (ISS). The China Space Station is due to become operational as soon as 2022.
“CSS belongs not only to China, but also to the world,” said Shi Zhongjun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations. “All countries, regardless of their size and level of development, can participate in the cooperation on an equal footing.”
China’s invitation could potentially represent the greatest soft power threat to the US and Russian dominance of spaceflight over the last six decades.
In the public announcement of this policy on China’s state news service Xinhua, Chinese officials expressed the country’s readiness to assist developing countries interested in space technology, including those interested in having their own space programmes. This offer is seen by some as a rebuke to the U.S. government and the International Space Station. By law, the U.S. forbids direct involvement between China’s space programme and NASA, a policy established by the U.S. Congress to prevent technology transfer.
With the International Space Station expected to end as soon as 2025, China may consider this as the opportunity to position itself as a ready alternative to countries looking for a way to send their astronauts and experiments into space, including emerging space powers as well as NASA’s longtime European partners.
European astronauts are already traveling to China to learn Mandarin and train with their Chinese counterparts. “Just back from China, great week, many new friends,” Samantha Cristoforetti, who spent 200 days in space in 2014 and 2015 aboard the International Space Station, posted on Twitter in 2017. The European Space Agency has an agreement with China’s space agency that should allow European astronauts to visit the Chinese space station in the 2020s.
The Chinese invitation will likely also appeal to emerging space powers in Africa, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and also Central Asia and other former Soviet republics. Further, it should be expected that China links international participation in its space station with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), likely prioritising countries participating in the BRI to also participate in space station activities.