Enough space for everyone? US, China target Africa

Enough space for everyone? US, China target Africa
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As a new space race between the United States and China takes off, Africa is increasingly an arena for competition between the two superpowers. And so far, analysts say, China is ahead.

While Africa's space agencies are still in their infancy compared to those of the U.S. and China, analysts say space has become a new frontier for diplomacy with African countries.

"In recent years, China has emerged as the leading partner with Africa," said Nigerian space scientist Temidayo Oniosun, who is the founder of Space in Africa, an analytics and consulting company.

Oniosun says there have been a lot of collaborations across sectors including communications, observation, navigation and positioning. China is developing satellites for different partners, ground station infrastructure, and is pushing for countries to adopt its BeiDou satellite navigation system, seen as an alternative to America's GPS.

"Chinese companies have been capitalizing on this for years. It's now that the U.S. is waking up to this," he said during a recent forum on the topic at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington or USIP, a think tank founded by Congress.

"U.S. strategy towards Africa in space is actually more about reducing the hegemony of China over Africa than anything else. … I think one of the major reasons they're [the U.S.] paying attention is because China is doing so much," Oniosun told VOA.

Asked whether the U.S. was indeed playing catch-up, a National Security Council spokesperson did not comment on Chinese competition directly, but said in that "U.S. companies are at the forefront" of working with Africa.

The spokesperson detailed some of the agreements on space announced at last year's U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit, including Nigeria's partnership with U.S. firm SpaceX, which also helped Kenya launch its first operational earth satellite in April.

China regards Space X as competition

China sees Elon Musk's company as a major rival to its ambition to become a dominant space power by 2045.

Asked whether China was ahead when it came to space cooperation with Africa, a NASA spokesperson told VOA: "The United States continues to work internationally for a safe, peaceful, and prosperous future in space. Working with both new and existing partners will add new energy and capabilities to help ensure the entire world can benefit from our journey of exploration and discovery."

As one example of cooperation with Africa, the NASA spokesperson pointed to the U.S. agency's current collaboration with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) on plans to build a new tracking and communications antenna site near Matjiesfontein, in the country's semi-desert area of Karoo.

"NASA is currently finalizing negotiations for an agreement for NASA to build an 18-meter Lunar Exploration Ground Sites antenna to support the Artemis Program and the human lunar return to the moon," the spokesperson said.

U.S. led Artemis Accords is described as a "set of principles designed to guide civil space exploration and use in the 21st century." Other African countries have also been signing onto NASA's Artemis Accords, including Angola whose president signed the accords on November 30, during a visit to the White House.

View from Africa

According to a USIP report, co-authored by Oniosun, there are currently space programs in more than 20 African countries, and Africa accounted for 0.7 percent of global space expenditure in 2020.

Rather than seeking to participate in deep space exploration or human spaceflight, the report says many African countries see space development as a way of achieving national development goals and space-linked infrastructure as an important way to address problems such as climate change, national disaster preparedness and counter-terrorism.

A list sent to VOA by the South African National Space Agency, mentioned 11 partnerships with the U.S., including on deep space exploration, space education, space science research, hosting of Global Navigation Satellite System equipment, and six standing agreements relating to space operations.

"SANSA also has long-standing working relationships with USA and Canadian researchers in space weather," Asanda Sangoni, acting managing director of SANSA Earth Observation, told VOA in a written response.

The agency has three projects or agreements with China on space exploration, satellite navigation, and general space cooperation, according to Sangoni.

Asked whether Africa is becoming one of the areas of competition in a new Cold War space race, Sangoni wrote: "There is no single "Space Race" (if there is any) in the traditional sense."

"The global space landscape is evolving, with an increasing number of nations, including emerging nations, participating and often partnering in space activities. These nations pursue various goals and objectives based on their unique circumstances and interests, contributing to the overall development of space exploration and utilization," Sangoni wrote.

"SANSA strongly believes that space-related activities should be inclusive and beneficial for all mankind. SANSA promotes the peaceful use of space and respectful cooperation," she added.

National Security Concern?

During the U.S. Institute of Peace panel, Joseph Sany, the vice president of the Africa Center, explained some of the perceived risks that are fueling the new space race.

"As great powers vie for dominance in space, the risk of conflict between them looms large," he said. "In an environment where space assets are essential for intelligence gathering, communication and military operation, disparities in capabilities could heighten tensions and create an atmosphere conducive to conflict."

"As competition intensifies, the trust and willingness to cooperate may diminish" Sany said. "Misunderstandings, miscommunications or deliberate disruptions in communication systems could easily escalate into full-blown conflict."

The Pentagon's 2023 annual report to Congress on China's military developments makes numerous references to Beijing's ambitions in space.

The People's Liberation Army "views space superiority, the ability to control the space-enabled information sphere and to deny adversaries their own space-based information gathering and communication capabilities, as critical components to conduct modern 'informatized warfare'," the report states.

"The PLA continues to acquire and develop a range of counter-space capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots, as well as expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counter space actions," according to the report.

It's not just Africa where China's space industry footprint is expanding. A recent article in The Washington Post said the Pentagon is concerned that some of China's space and satellite programs in Latin America having defense capabilities.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington referred VOA's questions on its space cooperation with Africa to the Chinese Mission to the African Union, which did not reply to requests for comment.

Source: VOA

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