China-France space partnership reaching new heights – Defense News

By Dr. Ajay Lele

In June 2024, Sino-French cooperation in space achieved important milestones. On June 22, 2024, a joint French-Chinese satellite was launched to detect the most powerful explosions in the universe. This satellite, called the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM), is a product of collaboration between scientists from the two countries. Additionally, on June 25, 2024, lunar samples collected by China's Chang'e-6 mission from the far side of the Moon were successfully returned to Earth. The mission, launched on May 3, 2024, includes a French payload on the Chang'e-6 lunar probe. The lander unit of Chang'e-6 is equipped with a French instrument called DORN (Detection of Outgassing Radon).

Short article entry These recent space endeavors highlight the ongoing partnership and cooperation in space exploration between China and France.
SVOM's mission is using X-ray vision to track the source of gamma-ray bursts, which are detected in the sky about once every day. Human interest in this cosmic probe goes back to the period of the Cold War era. Around 1967, satellite monitoring was carried out by the US for the purpose of checking compliance with regard to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. During that phase the satellites observed a brief flash of gamma rays, which can also be produced by nuclear explosions. After detailed investigation the scientists realised that what they had observed was not associated with any nuclear probe but rather the gamma-ray bursts came from space. Today various agencies around the world (for example NASA's Swift telescope) are investigating the origin of these objects and the SVOM mission is one such effort.

DORN (Detection of Outgassing Radon) is designed to study the movement of lunar dust and other volatile substances between the lunar regolith and the exosphere, including aspects of the lunar water cycle. The DORN instrument measures radon and polonium, two radioactive tracers, by capturing alpha particles emitted by these radioactive nuclei in orbit around the Moon and on its surface. This success of SVOM and DORN is indeed an important milestone in the bilateral relations between China and France. It reflects collaborative efforts in space exploration and technology Tension has increased between the two countries.

During May 2024, Xi Jinping will visit France to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. France was the first major Western power to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China at the ambassadorial level in 1964. Bilateral relations have been growing steadily since then. Today, France is China's third-largest trading partner and China is France's largest trading partner in Asia. Climate change has been an important part of China-France cooperation, and so has space.

China and France have enjoyed a long history of cooperation in space. In 1997, the two governments signed an agreement in the peaceful uses of outer space, marking the first cooperation in the field of space. The first oceanography satellite jointly developed by the two countries was successfully launched at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in October 2018. This satellite, called the Chinese-French Oceanography Satellite (CFOSAT), is a 650-kilogram bird placed in low Earth orbit (520 km), mainly used in marine meteorology. This satellite is equipped with two radar scatterometers: Wind Scatterometer (SCAT) and Surface Waves Investigation and Monitoring (SWIM). SCAT fully monitors wind speed, magnitude and direction and SWIM gives information about the direction of wind speed, wave height, wave propagation direction and wavelength of waves. This whole project greatly assists climate scientists in understanding the interaction between oceans and the atmosphere.

The Chang'e-5 Moon mission carried out by China in 2020 was also a Moon sample return mission like the recent Chang'e-6 mission. During French President Macron's visit to China in April 2023, China gifted 1.5 grams of lunar samples to France for scientific use.

Indeed, China's cooperation in the space sector extends far beyond its borders, involving a variety of different countries and regions. Such collaborations highlight China's active participation and cooperation in space exploration and technology. China's partnerships span across continents and include collaborative efforts with African countries, such as satellite launches and technological exchanges aimed at enhancing capabilities in telecommunications, Earth observation, and scientific research. Additionally, countries such as Brazil, Italy, Pakistan are also involved.Egypt, Thailand and the UAE are major partners in joint space missions, satellite projects, and scientific endeavours.

China operates space tracking stations in several countries, including Australia, Chile, Kenya, Namibia, Pakistan, and Sweden. These stations play a vital role in tracking and communicating with Chinese satellites and spacecraft, supporting both civilian and military space missions. In addition, China actively engages in international cooperation and provides space-related technology and services to various countries. This includes satellite launch, satellite manufacturing, ground station services, and satellite data applications. Some of the countries involved in these collaborations and partnerships include Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Bolivia, France, Indonesia, Laos, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Venezuela.

It is important to understand the 'political significance' of China's global involvement in the space sector, in general and with France in particular. The PRC is using cooperation in the space sector as a means to connect and influence the international environment. Within a short period of time, the PRC has achieved excellence in the space sector. They fully understand the soft-power status of their achievements in the field of space. They are keen to expand their space industry At the same time, many in the world are concerned about their motives because of their investments to expand their counter-space program. Notably, in 2011 the US administration has come up with the Wolf Amendment, a law passed by the US Congress. The bill prohibits the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from using government funds to conduct direct, bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government and other agencies.

China's growing involvement in the space sector, especially with countries like France, reflects its strategic approach to international relations, especially in the context of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Today, any decision in the UNSC is influenced by geopolitical rivalries. Differences among the permanent members: China and Russia versus the other three members (US, UK, France), can influence decision-making. Currently, China's partnerships in space with France and other countries reflect its efforts to build strategic alliances outside of traditional political alliances. Overall, China's strategic partnership with France in the space sector not only strengthens bilateral relations but also enhances China's diplomatic leverage within international forums like the UNSC.

The author is Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA, New Delhi.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Reproduction of this material without permission is prohibited.

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