China's self-serving moon shot

On Saturday, China became only the third country to land a module safely on the moon. With half a billion impoverished citizens this expensive project makes little sense – except as a geopolitical power play.

China’s first lunar rover was launched from Chang’e-3, an unmanned spacecraft, and successfully landed on the moon last Saturday. Cutely named Jade Rabbit (or Yutu in Chinese,) the six-wheeled lunar rover is equipped with four cameras and two mechanical legs that can dig into soil samples to a depth of about thirty metres. The solar-powered vehicle will patrol the moon’s surface and study the lunar crust for at least three months. This achievement means that China is one of only three nations – after America and former Soviet Union – to land a vehicle on the moon’s surface.

Jade Rabbit’s success is no mean feat. But China wants more than this. In 2008, Beijing announced to the world that it aims to land a man on the moon by 2020. Saturday’s achievement is only one small step in a greater quest for the Chinese. We all know that the Neil Armstrong-led Apollo 11 mission did it over forty years ago. Now, a country with more than half a billion people living on less than US $2 a day wants to emulate that feat.

India, Japan and South Korea have all expressed interest in doing the same thing although the Chinese are by far the most committed to the task. Which begs the question: why does China want to be the first Asian nation to land a man on the moon?

Some Chinese agencies and officials say it is about a search for resources. Indeed, Jade Rabbit will survey minerals in a lunar crater named the Bay of Rainbows. The moon is believed to be rich in uranium, titanium and other mineral resources. It is also believed that the moon is far richer than the Earth in helium-3, an isotope of an element which could be the ‘perfect fusion energy source to replace oil and gas’ according to some reports. Several officials in China claim that helium-3 could be used to generate power for more than 10,000 years, even if the technology behind fusion reactors needed to utilise helium-3 does not yet exist. Others suggest that the moon could offer possibilities in solar generation, while there are also suggestions that a permanent base on the moon could be used for further Chinese deep space exploration.

Level-headed experts in China, and outside, caution that such aims are highly speculative. They argue that such plans are prohibitive in terms of cost, and that the science of these plans may not even be sound. Even so, Beijing has already poured tens of billions of dollars into its space program and will commit much more. There are even some in China who openly question whether the financial commitment is worthwhile when there are so many other problems to solve in China’s portion of the Earth. When doing a cost-benefit analysis means that the objectives do not make sense, and the prospect of failure (beyond landing a man on the moon) is far more likely than success, one must immediately suspect that the motivation goes beyond material gain.

Nation-states are strange creatures and indeed the motivations are ‘irrational’ - to economists and the like at least. First, there is national pride, which can serve as a unifying force. Staying unified and ‘big’ is a fundamental goal of China's authoritarian regime. Being the first Asian country to send a man to the moon would be an enormous achievement; it would also enhance the reputation of the Communist Party in the eyes of the Chinese people. It is no surprise that the successful landing of Jade Rabbit was plastered all over official Chinese news and blog sites within the country.

Second, prestige enhances a nation's ‘soft power,’ which rests on the ability to influence and shape the preferences of others and is the pulling power of a country's culture, ideals and achievements. China's promotion of the achievements during its 5,000-year-old civilization is one illustration of soft power at play. How often have we been told by Chinese propaganda agencies that paper making, gun-powder, printing and the compass were all invented in China? Being the first in Asia to land a man on the moon – and lead space exploration by mankind - would add to the grand narrative of the Middle Kingdom’s irresistible progress.

Third, the prestige that comes with success commands respect. Rising powers rarely feel secure unless they are accepted by other great powers. This is embedded in the consciousness of modern China, where memories of the country's historic fall from power in the 19th century remain profound.

Up to the 15th century, Chinese technological know-how was the most advanced in the world. China had the largest economy in the world for 1,800 of the past 2,000 years. As recently as 1820, it produced one-third of global output, and it remained the world's largest economy until 1885. Yet, since the 1840s, China has suffered what it sees as a series of humiliations at the hands of foreign powers: from the British, Japanese and Russians, as well as the Americans, who continue to protect Taiwan. Of course, official Chinese histories tend not to emphasise the self-inflicted troubles and wounds in the twentieth century that caused unparalleled disaster for its people.

Nevertheless, according to the prevailing Chinese interpretation of its history, foreign powers have stood ready to carve up China since the mid-1800s. They did so, not only because of expansionist greed, but because they had little respect for the greatness of its civilization. For many Chinese, the country's achievements over the 5,000 years gave it a mandate to dominate Asia based on its economic, cultural and technological authority. This authority was trampled upon by outside powers, and lost from the mid-19th century onwards. Even 30 years after Deng Xiaoping decided to enter the global system, China thinks of itself as an outsider. President Xi Jinping, like his predecessors, continually emphasise that “hostile foreign forces have not abandoned their conspiracy and tactics to Westernize China and to divide the country.”

Growing its economic and military might – like firing missiles allegedly capable of taking down an American aircraft carrier – is about demonstrating the country's capability. But putting the first Asian person on the moon and exploring the marvels of the universe is more subtle and far more seductive and attractive to outsiders.

This then is the bottom line. Despite talk about China's economic miracle and its great re-emergence, China remains an insecure power governed by an insecure regime. The Chinese Communist Party is seeking to convince the Chinese people that it is uniquely placed to return their country to greatness. Beijing is not looking to spend tens of billions of dollars without a clear idea of what it wants in return.

True, Neil Armstrong did it so many years ago. But no one has done it since. A Chinese footprint and flag on the moon’s surface would be some tangible evidence that Asia can emulate the achievements of the West; and that China is Asia’s natural leading light. To Beijing, that is well worth the money that it is devoting to these projects.  

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.