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Asia’s Space Race

Asia’s Space Race by James Clay Moltz. Columbia University Press, 2012, 288 pp.

In his latest book, James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School offers a comprehensive historical and contemporary analysis of the rise of Asia’s 14 leading space power nations. His research is founded on discussions with regional experts at several international conferences as well as more-focused interviews through travel to China, Japan, and South Korea. This book stands out as a unique and informative study due to its regional focus while not ignoring prospective effects on the global scene.

This book is particularly timely in light of the 2011 US National Security Space Strategy’s recognition that “Space, a domain that no nation owns but on which all rely, is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive.” By most recent accounts, more than 40 nations own an orbiting satellite outright or through a partnership. Moltz focuses on 14 nations in a single region, of which all but one—North Korea—are space-faring nations today. He highlights the element of competition as a major catalyst for Asian growth in the space domain, whether for economics, security, or prestige. With China’s release of its latest white paper, China’s Space Activities in 2011, on 29 December, his timing could not be better.

In determining what constitutes a space program, Moltz settles on “a continuum starting on one end with possession of some space-related capability” (read North Korea in terms of its long-range missile capability) to the other end of the scale where a nation possesses “a full spectrum of civil, commercial, and military space assets” (read China). With these criteria in mind, the author focuses on the four leading Asian space programs of Japan, China, India, and rising South Korea. Moltz highlights three historical motivations for countries to aspire to space power status: progress in science and technology, national security, and pride or prestige on an international level. All three were evident in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War; likewise, these same motivations are apparent in the 14 Asian nations of this study.

Moltz extends his analysis to 10 additional emerging national space programs in the region, extrapolating historical and contemporary factors unique to each. In no particular order, save alphabetical, he examines Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. He takes a methodical approach to compare and contrast each against the others as well as to the lead four and provides a historical perspective with regard to space, in some cases reaching back to humble beginnings during the Cold War–era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. He analyzes current space politics with a focus on civil and commercial space dynamics, military space activities where evident, and finally in the area of regional prestige and cooperation.

How each nation achieved its current space power is as varied as each country’s history, culture, politics, and education system. Some achieved space prowess as net recipients of technology from other countries, others on the backs of established space powers, while still others have their origins in technological or military (national security) needs. Likewise, each country has had differing relationships with the United States, the Soviet Union (and now Russia), and European nations in terms of space cooperation. More than once, Moltz points out the effects US sanctions and tightening of International Traffic in Arms Regulations have had on budding space nations and US commercial opportunities.

Moltz posits that Asia’s lack of cooperation stems from its culture. This is not to say Asians are uncooperative by nature, but more precisely, Asian culture holds prestige at a premium, both collectively and individually. “Asia’s space powers are largely isolated from one another, do not share information, and display a tremendous divergence of perspectives regarding their space goals and a tendency to focus on national solutions to space challenges and policies of self-reliance rather than on regionwide policies or multilateral approaches” (emphasis in original). This is in stark contrast to the cooperation exhibited by the 18 countries that comprise the European Space Agency (ESA).

The underlying theme of this study is whether Asia will have a space race of its own—albeit for different motives and under different circumstances than that of the Cold War superpowers—and what the potential positive and negative security outcomes would be if such a race were to develop. To avoid potential negative implications, Moltz offers possible bridging approaches to enhance cooperation in the areas of civil, commercial, and security (military) space among Asian space powers and the global community.

This articulate, comprehensive book provides illuminating insight into a region on the space-power fast track that is well worth reading for anyone with an eye toward security implications for the global domain of space. Policy analysts, international relations specialists, and academicians alike will benefit from this captivating study on Asian past, present, and potential future activities in the space realm and what this could mean for global security.

Col Richard B. Van Hook, USAF

Air Force Space Command Chair to Air University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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