The Asian Space Race Arrives
When North Korea tried and failed to launch a satellite into orbit last month, observers in the West paid attention mostly to the Unha-3 rocket beneath it. If the launch had worked, North Korea would likely have had a ballistic missile powerful enough to reach Alaska with a 1-ton weapon and Seattle and San Francisco with a 500-kilogram bomb (albeit with questionable accuracy).
But the power of the booster wasn’t the whole story: The third stage of the rocket mattered, too. Perched on top was North Korea’s first remote-sensing satellite, and it carried an implicit message for rival South Korea, which has not yet succeeded in launching a satellite of its own: “You may think you’re ahead technologically, but we can beat you into space.”
Amid all the US analysis of the North Korean launch, one point tended to get lost: It was just the most recent entry in Asia’s accelerating space race. China conducted 18 successful space launches last year, passing the United States in annual launches for the first time. India has increased its space budget by 50 percent this year. And Japan has abandoned decades of purely peaceful space activity to allow military missions. Newcomers like Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam are joining in as well.
Just as the rest of the world is beginning to cooperate in space, Asian countries are becoming increasingly competitive. In the West, 19 European countries are sharing technology and costs within the framework of the European Space Agency; even the United States and Russia have joined in close cooperation on the International Space Station and share a number of joint commercial ventures.