Space Race II OR Much Ado About Shenzhou

So the Chinese have made their way into space. Good for them.

NASA puts out a brief, snark-tastic press release:

The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe about China’s first successful human space flight.

“This launch is an important achievement in the history of human exploration. China, after Russia and the United States, is only the third nation to successfully launch humans into space.

“The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration. NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight program.”

For additional information about NASA’s 45 years of exploration and discovery, visit: http://www.nasa.gov

[Emphasis mine.]

James Oberg’s editorial in USA Today on Shenzhou seems to indicate the hopefulness of many NASA watchers: “Space programs in the United States, Europe and even Japan need a good kick into gear. China’s emergence adds a full-fledged third partner to what has been mainly a U.S.-Russian alliance dictated by long-extinct diplomatic considerations.”

While Oberg might certainly be right about the fact that this will kick everyone&emdash;ESA and NASDA included&emdash;into the next gear, I think he misses one point. He says: “Fears about China in space should not sidetrack people. This isn’t the Cold War of U.S.-Soviet confrontation, so a new high-budget ‘space race’ isn’t in the cards. China is not racing us to establish a manned military station on the moon. Nor is it assembling an orbiting battle fleet to neutralize American space-based military tools. To imagine such threats is to fear shadows. To respond as if they were real would be folly.” To ignore the fact that China would seek to become the world’s other superpower and, eventually, supersede U.S. control is a bit of folly itself, Jim. Now, I might have read a little too much Tom Clancy for my own good, but to think that China is totally benign is missing the point.

With a gigantic population and a statist dictatorship still firmly in grasp of power in China, why is the Big Dragon seen as nice and fuzzy like the now-emasculated Big Bear or our ESA and NASDA partners? Is it because we think we can buy off Asian countries? Call me paranoid, but while I see the strong benefits of having a competitor&emdash;and potential partner&emdash;in the space exploration business, I also have to question their motives.