Author: Brian Waidelich, CNA

On 25 January 2023, Space News reported that the European Space Agency (ESA) no longer intends to send European astronauts to Tiangong, China’s newly completed space station. The report quoted the ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher saying that the agency was already ‘very busy’ with its International Space Station (ISS) commitments and that it currently lacked both the budgetary and political ‘green light’ to engage with China’s space station.

A Long March-5B Y4 rocket, carrying the Mengtian lab module for China's under-construction space station Tiangong, takes off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan province, China, 31 October 31 2022 (Photo: Reuters/China Daily).

A Long March-5B Y4 rocket, carrying the Mengtian lab module for China's under-construction space station Tiangong, takes off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan province, China, 31 October 31 2022 (Photo: Reuters/China Daily).

The Director General’s remarks come several years after the stall of efforts to prepare European astronauts for flights on China’s space station. This had been a major development following decades of cooperation between the two space agencies.

In 2016, a Chinese astronaut participated in an ESA astronaut training course. The next year, two European astronauts carried out sea survival training with their Chinese counterparts. But after 2017, the budding human spaceflight cooperation between the two sides hit a snag.

The assertion that budgetary constraints are holding the ESA back from participating in Tiangong’s mission has its merits. As pointed out by Eric Berger, the senior space editor at Ars Technica, ESA funding is less than one-third of NASA’s. The European agency must be choosier about how it uses its limited resources.

But politics undoubtedly exerted the greatest influence on the ESA’s decision. For years, European countries have been reconsidering the nature of their relations with China amid growing concerns over human rights, technology security and intensifying strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. The pace of those shifting views was quickened following the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

China, while claiming to be impartial to the conflict, has consistently issued official statements and media reports with pro-Russian narratives and has expanded its economic ties with Russia amid Western countries’ economic sanctions on Moscow. Although Beijing has not yet provided lethal military aid to Russia, China’s companies have supported Russia with ‘nonlethal assistance,’ according to US officials. And China’s military has participated in large-scale exercises and patrols with Russian armed forces aimed at improving their interoperability and deterrence signalling. At a time when Europe and China are supporting opposite sides of a conflict that has been likened to a superpower proxy war, sending European astronauts to Tiangong would be awkward at best.

The ESA Director General’s remarks, while annoying to Beijing, were almost certainly not unexpected. During a press conference in April 2022, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin dodged a direct answer when asked whether any foreign astronauts would enter China’s space station. In the vaguely worded reply, the spokesperson said that foreign astronauts are ‘welcome to visit’.

While it is likely an unwelcome development for Beijing, it is highly improbable that the absence of European astronauts on Tiangong will have any notable effect on the space station’s operations or on China’s expansion into space more broadly. China has invested enormous sums into its manned space program since the 1990s. Its reported space budget is second only to the United States. It is seeking to become the world’s pre-eminent space power by mid-century.

Unlike the ISS, China has built and managed Tiangong without depending on other countries for funds or personnel. According to China’s official news agency Xinhua, Chinese space station developers ‘have been adhering to self-reliance and independent innovation’, ‘developed a large number of core technologies’ and achieved complete localisation of ‘key components’.

Even if China’s space station does not host European astronauts any time soon, researchers from Europe and other countries may proceed with plans to use Tiangong as an alternative to the competitive spots for scientific experiments on the ISS.

In 2019, China — in collaboration with the ESA and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs — selected nine projects from 17 countries to be implemented on Tiangong. Most of these projects were apparently designed to be conducted in space by Chinese astronauts, with ground support from other countries’ researchers. According to China Daily, there had only been requests from several of the 17 countries to send their own astronauts to run these experiments on the space station.

China understands the benefits of space cooperation as a means of pooling resources and advancing important scientific discoveries. But what China ultimately seeks in opening up Tiangong to foreign researchers is to use space cooperation as a means of supporting Beijing’s larger political and diplomatic goals of making China more respected and influential.

As the Director General of China’s Manned Space Agency put it, ‘we hope to make China’s space station a platform which promotes the building of a community with a shared future for mankind’. This invoking of the ‘community with a shared future for mankind’ rhetoric — a major foreign policy initiative under Chinese President Xi Jinping — ties Tiangong to Beijing’s broader efforts to lessen US influence and transform the international system in ways more suited to China’s interests.

By claiming that its space station is open to all UN members, China hopes to portray itself as more inclusive than the United States as China has been barred from joining the ISS. Yet by continually playing up Tiangong as a feat of self-reliance, Beijing undermines the potential contributions of international partners.

On 25 February 2023, a month after the ESA Director General’s remarks, an official from China’s Manned Space Agency said that they would soon begin selecting foreign astronauts from ‘multiple countries’ for ‘joint flights’ to China’s space station. Without naming any specific countries or deadlines for selection, the official expressed hopes that foreign candidates could use their time on Tiangong to ‘get some knowledge about Chinese culture.’

Going forward, China will likely continue to highlight signs of international support for its space program, but it will not engage in major initiatives that depend on other countries’ resources. Foreigners may certainly visit China’s space station, but they will not be critical to its success.

Brian Waidelich is a Research Scientist with the China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Division at CNA.