As the dawn breaks on the 21st Century, already the social and political tides that shaped the world of the 20th Century move across the globe, repositioning political alignments, opening some borders while closing others. If the last one hundred years were the American Century, and, as some believe, the United States now stands at the apex of its political, economic and military power, it can be argued that--as history dictates--a fall is sure to follow.

How and when is yet to be seen, but already two players wait in the wings, redefining their roles on the world stage and preparing for their close-ups. But while the European Union expands and forges its own identity in a slow bureaucratic manner, making sure not to ruffle feathers on this side of the Atlantic, China races to embrace its destiny as a global player to be reckoned with. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the realm of space exploration.

For decades, the world's most populous nation lived in self-imposed isolation, but now it moves to engage the world as an economic, cultural, and, inevitably, a military power. Just as the Cold War spawned the space race and put a man on the moon, much of today's quest for space is rooted in the desire to gain--and keep--the military advantage, the "higher ground". As most Americans saw during both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the use of space-based assets allowed U.S.-led coalition forces to coordinate everything from food drops to waging fierce military offenses with deadly precision. China was watching, too.

Though both nations are intertwined economically, with American investment helping drive Chinese business and the American consumer purchasing manufactured products, such a partnership could easily be undone over the issue of Taiwanese independence, territorial and natural resource disputes, or the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. With a space program deeply rooted in its military, America remains skeptical and wary of China's intentions. But if the Cold War taught us anything, it is that measured responses and tentative steps can open channels of communication and cooperation.

For this special report, we invited Jeffrey Lewis of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, The Heritage Foundation's Larry M. Wortzel, Phillip C. Saunders, from the National Defense University's Institute of National Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C., and Vincent G. Sabathier, a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to examine China's emerging space prowess, its military applications and if--and how--the United States should engage that country.

Anthony Duignan-Cabrera is the Editorial Director of Imaginova Corporation's Consumer Media Division. He is also the editor of Ad Astra Magazine. This Special Report first appeared in the Spring, 2005 edition of Ad Astra Magazine.

Image Credit: Joe Bergeron

Download: China's Space Milestones

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