The moment is badly chosen but with Elon Musk the unexpected is the rule.
The serial entrepreneur arrived in China on May 30, according to Reuters, whose journalists spotted his private jet at Beijing airport. This surprise visit by the CEO of electric vehicle producer Tesla, founder of SpaceX and owner of Twitter, comes at a time of renewed tensions between China and the United States, which raise fears of a potential confrontation between the two leading world powers.
Musk and his empire symbolize, according to experts, the intricacy of the two largest world economies, which are interdependent on each other. The United States and China are Tesla’s two biggest markets and the regions where the world leader in electric vehicles manufactures the vast majority of its cars. Tesla (TSLA) – Get Free Report recently announced the construction of a second plant in Shanghai to produce its megapack energy storage system.
The carmaker is awaiting the green light from the Chinese authorities to increase production at the Shanghai factory, as well as their decision on Full Self Driving (FSD), its driver assistance system allowing its cars to be partially autonomous. FSD, which costs $15,000, is one of Tesla’s big sources of income and enables the carmaker to lower the prices of its cars because it can make up for this shortfall.
China on the Moon by 2030?
The Chinese authorities are also watching closely Starlink, the satellite Internet access service. Starlink propelled Musk onto the international geopolitical scene, particularly in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine. The system has become the main communication system of the Ukrainian armed forces on the front and also allows civilian populations to tell their daily stories to the world. This second point made it possible to circumvent Russian propaganda.
In addition to this civilian use of Starlink, which worries dictatorships or countries governed by strongmen, the military aspects of Starlink, which can, for example, enable to direct drones, worry Beijing.
Given all these issues, Musk’s surprise visit, which has not yet been confirmed by Tesla or the Chinese authorities, will be closely watched by the administration of President Joe Biden.
It is in this context that Musk has just warned the world, and the West in particular, that China has taken a big step in the race to conquer space.
“The China space program is far more advanced than most people realize,” Musk posted on Twitter on May 29.
He was commenting on an article in which a Chinese official claimed that China would perform a crewed lunar landing before 2030.
“By 2030, the Chinese people will definitely be able to set foot on the moon. That’s not a problem,” Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the lunar exploration program, made the statement in an interview with China Media Group (CMG) prior to the eighth Space Day of China.
Chinese scientists have already said that the country can complete a mission to land a human on the Moon by 2030. But by confirming the timetable, China intensifies the space race with the US.
“We can kiss the Moon in the ninth heaven,” Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of China’s Manned Space Agency, said on Monday at a press conference, citing a poem by Mao Zedong. This project is part of the larger lunar exploration program which would also seek to enable short stays on the lunar surface, as well as collect samples and conduct research, Lin Xiqiang detailed.
China v. the West
A manned lunar landing would be a major milestone for China’s space exploration. No human has been on the Moon since the United States’ Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s. NASA also announced a plan to send people to the Moon again, with a target date of 2025. But the Artemis program is experiencing delays. Beijing and Washington have also set goals of building a research station on the Moon and landing people on Mars.
As space has become a theater of tensions between Washington and Beijing, NASA boss Bill Nelson has said that the United States should “be careful” of Chinese attempts to dominate the lunar surface and prevent Americans to enter. A Pentagon report last year warned that China could overtake American capabilities in space by 2045. China, experts say, is aware that any future war, especially with the United States, will begin in outer space — atmospheric and cybernetic. Taking command of space has therefore become a decisive issue in the event of a conflict.
While some hoped that China and the United States could cooperate on space exploration despite geopolitical tensions, a provision in the U.S. law which funds NASA prohibits direct cooperation with the Chinese space agency or Chinese companies. So far, no country has accepted Xi Jinping’s offer to send its astronauts into space aboard a Chinese rocket.
China continues to move forward with its space goals. On Tuesday, the Shenzhou 16 mission took off, taking three astronauts to the Chinese space station Tiangong, including one civilian.
Gui Haichao is not from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as is customary, but is a professor specializing in space science and engineering. The Shenzhou 16 astronauts will stay for six months on the Tiangong (“Heaven’s Palace”) space station where they will replace their three colleagues from the previous mission, Shenzhou-15, who will return to Earth in a few days.
Comprised of three modules, the Chinese station was completed late last year, after 11 manned and unmanned missions since April 2021. Now operational, it is similar in size to the former Russian-Soviet Mir station but is much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS). Currently T-shaped, the station will in the future see a new module docking to create a cross-shaped structure.
Beijing is expected to launch another crewed mission to the orbital station later this year. Also by the end of 2023, China is expected to launch a space telescope the size of a large bus. Known as Xuntian (“Survey the Heavens”), the orbiting telescope will offer a field of view 350 times wider than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, launched 33 years ago.
China’s conquest of space began under Mao more than 60 years ago but has accelerated since Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago. The Chinese president said that the country should become a “great space power”. Beijing is investing billions to dominate in terms of exploration, research and the launching of satellites.
China’s space program is growing rapidly while that of the United States has tended to get bogged down by conflicting priorities and changes in administration. Thus, in 2019, China placed a machine on the far side of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it brought back samples from the Moon and finalized Beidou, its satellite navigation system. In 2021, China landed a small robot on Mars.