China-Russia space cooperation: another small step in Beijing's pursuit of US?

Minnie Chan

Beijing and Moscow have announced an expansion of their cooperation in space exploration and related technologies, boosting their alliance as the China-US rivalry continues.

Their cooperation was announced on Wednesday during China's mission to land a spacecraft on the moon to collect rock and soil samples, advancing Beijing's claims to challenge the supremacy of the United States' space programme.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Mishustin announced a joint communique via their video conference on Wednesday, state news agency Xinhua reported, adding that the two premiers also expressed their willingness to enhance cooperation in the research and development of vaccines and medicines to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Russia on Thursday reported more than 28,000 new Covid-19 cases, its highest single-day tally. Its 2.3 million-plus reported cases is the fourth-highest total behind Brazil, India and the United States.

The communique said Russia and China would expand their cooperation in lunar and deep-space exploration, satellite communication technology, aerospace components and Russia's proposed Spektr-M scientific satellite.

Intended to study deep-space objects and look for extraterrestrial life, Spektr-M's budget was cut last year and it is not expected to launch until around 2030, according to Russian media.

The two sides said they would explore long-term cooperation in satellite navigation by enhancing the compatibility of China's BeiDou and Russia's Glonass satellites.

Russia inherited the former Soviet Union's space technologies and mantle of most senior partner to the American space programme, the two countries' scientists and astronauts having worked together since 1975's Apollo-Soyuz space mission.

Its potential cooperation with Beijing could make the US concerned about Chinese advances in space, according to military commentator and former Chinese military instructor Song Zhongping.

The Long March-5 Y5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-5 lunar probe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Wenchang, Hainan province, on November 24. Photo: Reuters alt=The Long March-5 Y5 rocket, carrying the Chang'e-5 lunar probe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Wenchang, Hainan province, on November 24. Photo: Reuters

"As a latecomer in the space [sphere], China has achieved rapid development in lunar, Mars and deep-space explorations," Song said. "If Russia works with China, it may form a new pattern in the space domain, led by the US and China individually in the future."

With space programmes involving dual-use technologies that have military and civilian applications, Chinese-Russian cooperation would benefit both sides' military industries, Song said.

The military-linked Chinese programme has been developing rapidly since it became the third nation to independently launch an astronaut into orbit in 2003, four decades after the Soviets and Americans.

China launched its first temporary orbiting laboratory, Tiangong-1, in 2011, followed by a second in 2016, and is planning to launch a permanent space station as early as 2022.

Russia has no independent active space station. Its last station, Mir-1, returned to Earth in 2001, and after a lack of investment its Mir-2 station formed part of the International Space Station, led by the US.

Hong Kong-based military expert Liang Guoliang said it may be a pragmatic move for Beijing and Moscow to work together on a Chinese space station, with both countries being targets for American sanctions.

"China needs Russia's deep-space experience, while Russia desires Chinese research funding to keep [advancing its] space research programme, as well as help Russian scientists to keep their jobs," Liang said.

A lack of research funding has been a significant problem for Russian scientists. The US government retains Russia as Nasa's key supplier of rocket engines - widely seen as a ploy to prevent Russia's RD-180 rocket scientists working with North Korea and Iran.

Premiers Li and Mishustin also promised to share development opportunities and enhance cooperation in trade, agriculture, transport, energy and infrastructure, Xinhua reported.

The two nations agreed to stage a joint drill next year on handling an infectious disease outbreak.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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