OPINION: Space technology and applications have the potential to make important contributions towards socio-economic development and the eradication of poverty and inequality. According to recent statistics, global space is now estimated at US $447 billion.
David Monyae and Dr Zhu Ming
The year 2022 marks 65 years since the launching of Russia’s Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, in 1957 marked the beginning of the space age of humankind.
Due to the development of space technology over the years, there are more than 4 800 active artificial satellites in space as of January 2022.
The different types of satellites such as global positioning system (GPS), broadcasting and weather satellites to mention a few provide critical services such as Earth observation and imagery, communication and navigation that have come to underpin our everyday lives.
The remote-sensed data from space satellites supply information that is used in agriculture, environment monitoring, land utilisation, urban planning, hydrography, geology, and commerce among other things.
Space technology and applications have the potential to make important contributions towards socio-economic development and the eradication of poverty and inequality. According to recent statistics, global space is now estimated at US $447 billion.
This is bigger than the GDP of Africa’s largest economy. Beyond that, space technology has also become central to military and defence operations thus making it essential for national and international security.
As such, the development of space technology and capabilities is a crucial area of co-operation between Africa and China.
Although the global space sector is growing, much of it is dominated by the West, particularly the United States which controls almost half of the active satellites orbiting the Earth.
By comparison, China is a distant second with 499 active satellites. Africa’s space sector is still very much in its infancy. African states control a total of only 41 active satellites which is 0.85% of the total number of satellites orbiting the Earth operated by 11 out 54 African countries. Countries such as Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, and Nigeria dominate the sector controlling 30 of the continent’s 41 satellites. Hence, it is not surprising that Africa produces a meagre 2% of the global space economy. This makes Africa dependent on most satellite services from the US West-owned equipment and technology thus compromising its strategic autonomy and sovereignty. Moreover, the lack of space capabilities in Africa undermines the continent’s quest to reach the target of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals SDGs by 2030.
It is, however, encouraging to note that Africa is beginning to appreciate the significance of space technology. The continental body, the African Union (AU) adopted the African Space Strategy to enable African countries to take advantage of the opportunities that come with space exploration and space applications. The integration of space technology in the management and governance of water resources, marine resources, environment, climate, and infrastructure can yield enormous societal and economic benefits for Africa. The strategy identifies strategic areas in developing the continent’s space capabilities which include the development of human capital, promoting research and development, respecting regulatory requirements, building critical infrastructure, promoting regional collaboration, and getting into strategic partnerships. One of Africa’s most important strategic partners in its space development endeavours will be China.
It is seldom known to the outside world that China is not a latecomer in the global space race. Qian Xuesen, eminent rocket scientist, who had helped establish the Jet Propulsion Centre in California during the 1940s, returned from the US to China for good in the 1950s. In 1956, Qian wrote a letter to the policymakers urging the necessity for China to develop rockets and missiles along with the need for a strong defence industry. Supported by the top leadership, efforts soon started to develop missiles and rockets, which laid the foundation for launching satellites. Since then, Beijing’s space industry has a history of 66 years.
China launched its first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, into space on April 24, 1970. At that time, China was a very poor nation as per capital even compared with some African nations. The success of China shows that even a poor nation could make remarkable achievements in the space industry with the conditions of solid leadership, long-term sustainable investments and patience.
The Asian giant boasts immense space capabilities and experience from which Africa can benefit.
China is only second to the US in terms of the number of artificial satellites it controls (499). The Chinese government has the second highest expenditure on space programmes after the US having spent over $10 billion in 2021. And Beijing has something to show for it. It has kept expanding use of its own Beidou system domestically and globally which could be one alternative to America’s GPS system.
In the five years between 2016 and 2021, China launched an incredible 207 space missions with some ground-breaking outcomes.
Some of its remarkable missions included a soft landing on the moon’s far side, bringing lunar samples to Earth and orbiting around Mars. In another first showing its increasing space prowess, China launched the Long March 8 rocket in February this year carrying a total of 22 satellites, which is a domestic record.
It was reported that China’s cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-4, carrying supplies for the upcoming Shenzhou-14 crewed mission, successfully docked with the combination of the space station core module Tianhe and the Tianzhou-3 cargo craft on June 21, 2022. The eye-catching fast progress of China’s manned space project is only one part of Beijing’s huge booming space industry.
Therefore, it is important that Africa engages China in its space technology development policies and programmes. China and Africa are already co-operating extensively in the space sector within the framework of bilateral and the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) platforms. The FOCAC 2021 Action Plan announced that the AU and the China National Space Administration will jointly write the White Paper on China-Africa Space Co-operation to identify major areas of potential cooperation.
Moreover, China offered to set up centres for China-Africa co-operation in satellite remote sensing application and also train aerospace professionals from different African countries. This will go a long way in improving Africa’s space capabilities. As Africa does not have operational satellite launch sites, China along with other external partners has provided launching services for African satellites.
Out of the 45 African satellites that have been launched between 1998 and 2021, six have been launched in China. All the six African satellites that were launched in China were manufactured by China Association for Science and Technology. Chinese companies have helped build about 5 satellites for African countries including Nigeria, Algeria, Ethiopia, and Sudan that were launched elsewhere. These projects included significant skills and technology transfer as they involved engineers from the respective countries.
To some extent, we could view China and Africa’s space co-operation as both sides’ top co-operation. Since the space industry involves many top science and technologies plus strict management, many space technologies could be used in the military (for example, missiles, spy satellites), such co-operation are always backed with high-level strategic trusts. China and Africa are good friends, comrades, partners for decades, that is why both sides could push space cooperation together easily.
China and Africa’s space co-operation goes beyond satellite manufacturing and launching. The two sides also co-operate in satellite services such as telecommunications and remote sensing. The Chinese state-owned enterprise, China Satcom, has some of its geosynchronous orbit (GEO) satellites providing telecommunication services to African countries. However, it still gets much of its services from European and US providers. More importantly, in the FOCAC 2021 Action Plan, China and Africa committed to enhancing co-operation in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Such co-operation will promote and advocate for fair and equitable global space rules that take due consideration of the interests of the developing countries. Such co-operation should also be taken to important platforms such as the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bloc to mobilise support for the space interests of the developing countries.
*David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.
*Dr Zhu Ming, Centre for West-Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies of China; Non-resident Scholar of Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg.