How Emerging Technologies have Opened a New Era of Geopolitical Competition

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The development of space technology has changed the course of history. For most of history, a state’s military strength was composed of air, land, and naval capabilities. However, with the advent of space technology, this triad has turned into a “quadrad” that includes outer space as a new theatre of power politics. Space is undergoing rapid changes due in large part to civilian usage as well as its elevation as an integral component of national security and international prestige. With the inception of outer space, the focus of space activities used to be communication-oriented, it has now become central to the transfer of information, for both military and commercial purposes. Amidst these changes, technology is the major variable explaining the opening of space to the international community, making space relevant to geopolitical considerations, economic competition, arms buildup, and territorial acquisition. In this context, major powers have started investing in space exploration which might ultimately lead to its militarization. In summation, technology is fueling a new geopolitical theatre in outer space that could culminate in increased inter-state competition.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has accelerated Space Exploration

Technology has always been the major driving force behind economic development and the introduction of new ideas and concepts. Just as the development of the steam engine sped up the manufacturing of railroads and other infrastructures and gave way to the first industrial revolution. The second wave of the industrial revolution in the 1870s began with the advances in the production of electricity, gas, and oil. Those elements were crucial in the communication through the telephone, telegraph, and development of automobiles and planes that facilitated the travel and uplifted economic conditions of the then developing countries (Logsdon, 2020).

The early 20th century witnessed the third wave of industrialization. One of the most significant developments of this wave was nuclear energy which changed the nature of warfare. It presented an opportunity for the state actors to revolutionise electronics, telecommunications, and computers. The third industrial revolution accompanied the opening of outer space to the human world. States begin to work on advanced technology related to space exploration and robotics (Anon., 2019).

With the modification of computers and information technology opened a new horizon with unlimited potential. These new technologies have driven down the cost of transmitting and processing data, allowing both state and non-state actors to access outer space. This has resulted in the spread of skills, knowledge, and information that are crucial for space flights and other space-based activities. Moreover, emerging technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things are opening the door for more sophisticated satellite systems.

Arguably, China has ascended more quickly than any other state actor to exploit the benefits provided by outer space. Compared to other major stakeholders in outer space such as Russia and the U.S., China has carried out more launches in a relatively short span of time, carrying out 39 launches in 2020 (Chris Tully, 2020). It has also launched human space flight, tested ASATs, launched a space station, and developed a global satellite navigation system, known as BeiDou. Furthermore, in 2017, Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Crops (CASC) stated that China was also planning to conduct more than 40 launches by 2021 in outer space and intends to develop the parts of the space station, including the Tianhe core cabinet, the Tianzhou-2 and -3 cargo spaceships, and the Shenzhou-12 and -13 manned spacecraft by 2021 (Howell, 2018).

Other countries such as India, Israel, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates are also trying to tap on the full potential of space technology. Currently, there are more than 55 states with functioning satellites and 1,957 operational satellites in orbit (Ma, 2021).

Besides this, the lower costs of space technology are also providing opportunities for private actors and companies to explore the commercial potential of outer space. SpaceX, a U.S.-based private company is currently developing a reusable space launch vehicle (SLV) with the name Falcon 9 to provide affordable space access to the general public, opening the door for space tourism in the future (Sheetz, 2020). In summation, new breakthrough space technologies have increased the economic, strategic, and military potential of outer space, leading state and non-state actors to compete for securing a sphere of influenc

Technological Trends in Outer Space

Space is undergoing rapid changes in different areas as the world gets more dependent on outer space and especially on the space economy. This change is mainly fueled by the expansion of its scope in terms of its use for civilian purposes, the significance of pursuit of space exploration, and its relevance to national security and prestige. Initially, the focus of technology remained communication oriented; the purpose of information-based satellites was to transfer information from a point in space to a large area on earth. Besides this, it was meant to detect natural and artificial disasters and was used to develop earth observation trends. Earlier, navigation was the only military goal served by technology in outer space. However, changes in technology have significantly broadened the scope and utility of outer space for military and strategic purposes. Now, cyber security, data collection, and quantum technology are central to any military and strategic endeavour and contribute significantly to achieving political and military objectives. The proliferation and manufacturing of anti-ballistic missiles and anti-satellite weapons are the latest additions in space technology.

Historically speaking, after the 1970s, there was an increased interest in the manufacturing of cruise missiles that led to the need to ameliorate accuracy. In 1991, it was the first time those missiles were used in a desert storm operation, which was the first that revealed the importance of outer space for military and strategic goals. The conventional arms BGM 109C and AGM 86C were used (Werrell, 1985). The accuracy of the missiles this time was a lot better than in the 1950s. The air defence inventors increasingly worked on cruise missiles and extending the range of launchers, in an action-reaction model of weapons development. To provide themselves with layered coverage, Russia and China continue to manufacture increasingly capable surface-to-air missile systems.

Noting the significance of the dual-purposed space-related technologies, North Korea is also creating critical space threats against the US and its allies. In 2012, under the leadership of Kim Jung Un, North Korea launched 6 ballistic missiles and another 25 in 2017, all with the maximum trajectory. These technologies can assist North Korea to develop anti-ballistic missiles that are likely to pose a grave challenge to the US and the world community (Anon., 2017). Like North Korea, Iran is also trying to achieve those kinds of technology to create first- and second-strike capabilities.

Chinese Space Silk Road Reshaping Geopolitics

Control of the high ground of space facilitates dominance over the earth because, if the information is the foundation of 21st-century power, space is the domain through which that information will flow. Space competition can be understood as an extension of terrestrial geopolitics. Uncontested, a Chinese Space Silk Road would keep out Western corporations and guarantee Beijing was the only provider of space services to BRI governments, adding a new layer of Chinese influence and control over most of Eurasia (Alessandro Arduino, 2019). In the end, this would ensure Chinese dominance over BRI economies. That can never be a positive outcome for the US in its larger conflict with China over strategic dominance in Asia.

China began exploring space in the 1960s with the aim of increasing its capability in the area in both the security and commercial domains. Following the US, China now has the second-highest number of operating satellites. President Xi Jinping's "China Dream" initiative to accelerate and modernise its military, diplomatic ties, and science and technology industries through the exploration of space is the key agenda of Beijing. Chinese counter-space operations or developing offensive-defensive technology in outer space to limit its adversary is a key component of their substantial foreign policy and are viewed as a key tool in the fight against potential US aggression. The manufacturing of solid fuel space launch vehicles, like the US Saturn V, for the purpose of exploring Mars and quickly building low earth orbits, is the most recent advancement in this direction (Pollpeter, 2021).

All space-related operations are now included in the global strategy after the unveiling of the Space Silk Road. This Space Road is a crucial component of BRI since it will offer guidance on how to hasten the construction of other land-based corridors and assist China in establishing its digital silk road. Due to its importance for navigation, surveillance, and the potential to bypass the influence of the US and its allies, this global space silk road will serve as the binding agent to bind together all BRI countries using Chinese Beidou satellites. China is making a very practical approach to neutralising US dominance in Space (Lindley, 2022).

Before initiating its own Space Silk Road as a map road to silk, China partnered with the United States and Russia in the field of space flights. Parallel to this, in 2003 China also proved its capabilities by launching its own astronaut, Yang Lwei into orbit on the Shenzhou-V. In later flights, Chinese astronauts performed spacewalks, docked their spaceship, and spent a lot of time in orbit. Furthermore, China has enhanced its position, navigation, and timing (PNT) network by adding Mid-Earth Orbits and Geosynchronous (GEO) orbiting satellites to the original geosynchronous (GEO) orbit Beidou network (Lindley, 2022).

The Chinese Space Silk Road (SSR) is the most crucial component of the Chinese Belt Road concept; without it, no other zones and corridors running under BRI can be accomplished. Chinese Space Silk Road is developing the most cutting-edge technology that can be repurposed and made readily available at a low price. To expand their sphere of influence and lessen their reliance on other nations for scientific resources, they are also establishing a space-related technological market. By launching its 55th Beidou satellite in June 2020, China effectively completed one of the primary elements of the space silk road: the creation of a global navigation network that would supplant the US-owned GPS (Pollpeter, 2021).

By 2050, China intends to construct a robotic lunar research facility, and it has already laid the groundwork for a manned space exploration program that will send astronauts to the Moon in the mid-2030s. In addition, China launched numerous new generation satellites in 2016, including the first quantum satellite system ever. Its Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and remote sensing satellite network deployed in 2018, also has more than 120 systems, which is better than the United States. The Chinese government has owned around 363 active satellites (Pollpeter, 2021). According to reports, half of them are set aside for military use. Additionally, China exports satellite technology to other countries, including its own domestically produced communications satellites.

Amna Kalhoro is a Pakistani M.Phil graduate in American studies from Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. She has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the National Defense University, Islamabad. Her main research areas are Astropolitics, US foreign policy, and International Security.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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