Johannesburg, South Africa – China and African nations are increasingly collaborating in space to develop their own ambitions in the next frontier analysts say.
Chinese astronauts known as taikonauts have been playing a role in space diplomacy while on a six-month mission on the Tiangong space station currently under construction.
Just last week, three taikonauts spoke to students from eight African countries via video link during an event hosted by the China Mission to the African Union.
“This event is a reflection of the ongoing collaboration between China and African countries. The space industry in Africa is growing at an incredible rate, hence countries and regions like China, Europe, Russia and the U.S. are beginning to compete for a stake in the industry,” Temidayo Oniosun, a Nigerian space scientist and managing director of the website ‘Space in Africa,’ told VOA.
A young Ethiopian wanted to know what astronauts eat in space and how they shower. A Somali student wanted to know about the future of space tourism and a female student from Egypt wanted to know whether it’s difficult for women to become astronauts.
The three taikonauts answered the questions in detail, showing them the food they eat in orbit, including “delicious purple rice porridge, tasty sauteed sweet corn with pine nuts, and sauteed diced beef in black pepper sauce,” and explained that because of zero-gravity it’s impossible to take a shower in space.
The event was not only a show of soft power on Beijing’s part, but also indicates the importance China is placing on the role Africa can help it play in the global space race, experts said.
China’s interests in Africa
“These engagements are not necessarily because China and the rest are engaging to help Africa, they’re doing so because they get economic, social and cultural capital in return,” said Oniosun.
China is second only to the U.S. in terms of the number of satellites in the world it controls.
A 2020 Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies working paper mentioned how “constructing remote sensing satellite networks” in Africa allowed China to “support logistical integration of Belt and Road (BRI) partner states” as one of the applications for cooperation in space.
In his remarks at the event in Addis Ababa last week, the head of China’s mission to the AU, Hu Changchun, said space was an important part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is rapidly building infrastructure in developing countries.
“African people are determined to explore space. In recent years under the guidance of the Belt and Road Initiative…space cooperation has become a highlight of China-Africa cooperation,” he said. “We have seen fruitful results of satellite launches, space infrastructure, as well as sharing of satellite resources … we have also provided high quality training for African researchers.”
Africa’s interests in space
Oniosun said the African space economy in 2021 was valued at $19.49 billion and is forecast to grow by some 16% in the next four years. However, as of 2022 only 13 African countries have 48 satellites, six of them built by China and one by the U.S., with experts saying satellite communication is essential to bridging the connectivity gap on the continent.
China launched Nigeria’s first communications satellite in 2007, and in 2011 launched Nigeria’s second one. Beijing also launched Algeria’s first communication satellite in 2017. In 2018, Tunisia became the site of the first ground receiving station outside of China for its Beidou Satellite Navigation System analysts said.
China helped Ethiopia and Sudan launch their first satellites in 2019.
More than 20 African countries now have space programs, and the AU-China astronaut event was meant to generate enthusiasm among African youth and challenge the idea “in Africa that space is somehow a luxury or an excess pursuit,” Julie Klinger, assistant professor at the University of Delaware, told VOA.
In fact, African nations are not interested in competing in a controversial space race, she said, and don’t prioritize military applications or even human spaceflight.
They are more interested in “developing space capabilities in order to address matters of socio-economic development,” with climate change, environmental monitoring and disaster management all important parts of China-Africa space collaboration, Klinger added.
While China has intensified its international collaboration on space since the advent of its Belt and Road Initiative, Klinger emphasized that China has to enter competitive bidding processes when it comes to getting space technology contracts with African governments.
“Honestly they don’t always win, the majority of satellite activity in particular in Africa is funded by African governments,” she said, with the most contracts going to France, China second and the U.S. a distant fourth.
Regardless of which countries African nations partner with, the students who participated in the question-and-answer session with the taikonauts became some of the youngest space diplomats to represent their country and may one day become astronauts who make it to space themselves.