Early this morning China successfully launched the core module of their new space station into Earth orbit. This station is the focus of the entire Chinese manned space program, at least for the near future, and represents the culmination of years of development and planning. Like all modern space stations, the massive installation will be assembled in orbit utilizing multiple launches, but the Chinese government expects the station to be completed by the end of 2022. There is no reason to expect that target can’t be met given their modest plans. Apart from expanding manned access to space, this station represents one more part of the Chinese government’s soft power exercise over the global scientific community.
A nation exercises soft power anytime they use some form of cultural influence on another nation, and this is a form of power that the United States practically invented during the Cold War. One might rightly ask why the United States government allows foreign scientists to conduct research at US government laboratories, and one justification is the exercise of soft power. A more straightforward term might be “good will.” It helps to have scientists on your side because scientists create new technologies and capabilities that governments want to exploit for economic or defense ends. Since the early 20th century the USA has been the go-to nation for scientists. That is a big part of why the US led technological innovation in the last century. The USA has a reputation for being the place where scientific innovation happens. It’s not a guarantee that reputation will continue.
With the launch of their space station, and the expectation that it will be fully operational within two years, China has offered up the opportunity to fly experiments to the international community. In fact, nine international experiments have already been selected to fly on the station through a program run in collaboration with the United Nations. It is no coincidence that China is opening up room on their station for international collaboration now, given that the US-led International Space Station will reach end of life in 2028. This isn’t the only place where China is looking to pick up the slack that America has dropped.
The recent unceremonious collapse of the beloved and iconic Arecibo telescope represented a major loss to radio astronomy. Many international researchers had built their entire careers at Arecibo, and many of these same researchers were left holding the bag when it collapsed. But fear not, astronomers, because China coincidentally announced that they would be opening their newer and larger radio telescope to international cooperation shortly after the collapse. The Chinese government will be granting 10% of the FAST telescope to international collaborators, with the remaining 90% going to Chinese researchers. Competition for that 10% will be fierce, as will attempts to get Chinese colleagues to submit proposals as co-authors to grab some of that 90%. (This is all above board, and is, quite frankly, how this form of soft power functions. You create a system to draw in foreign talent to boost your native talent, which means that you win, but everyone feels like they win something they want.)
China is not guilty of anything that the USA hasn’t been doing for years, namely exercising soft power to attract scientific talent and prestige. If anything, China is acknowledging that they recognize the importance of soft power and want to apply it in the realm of science and technology. When it comes to soft power China is a pro, and they coordinate across multiple efforts to get what they want. China looks to the USA and the way it has led the world for decades, and wants that role for itself, and is doing what it thinks it has to in order to achieve that goal.
Think I’m being paranoid? Allow me to introduce you to panda diplomacy.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.