This article appeared in Brandon J. Weichert’s occasional op-ed column at Real Clear Politics.
The United States is mired in a succession crisis.
There is much loose talk about another civil war erupting between supporters of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. As this occurs, America’s enemies act boldly against U.S. interests. Each precious moment wasted on deciding which septuagenarian won the White House in November is another moment that the Chinese Communist Party continues its long march to global dominance.
China’s dominance will not come at first in the form of military conquest. Beijing is very much a 21st century power, and its program for displacing the United States will look far different from what the Soviet Union tried during the Cold War. Chinese dominance will be brought on by superior trade, industrial, and technological development practices.
Beijing recently signed a revolutionary free trade alliance with several Asian powers—including Australia—meant to increase China’s influence over the Indo-Pacific and diminish Washington’s hard-won influence there. China announced it had achieved quantum supremacy—a lodestar for whichever country or company seeks to pioneer quantum computing. Many technologists, like Scott Amyx, have previously argued that quantum computing could be as disruptive to the world economy as the cotton gin or automobile were. Whoever dominates this new industry will write humanity’s future.
And then there’s the new space race between the United States and China. Private launch companies, including SpaceX, have revolutionized America’s overall space sector. But the lack of political vision or leadership means that real gains for America in space will be slowly realized, if ever. President Trump was the only American leader in decades who seemed to understand the promises and challenges of space. Yet, the rest of the government never fully embraced Trump’s robust space program. Now, it may be too late.
NASA’s Artemis Program, which is supposed to return Americans to the moon, is adrift, stuck in what Hollywood types might call “development hell.” Petty politics, budgetary constraints, and bureaucratic inertia have prevented this essential program from lifting off in a timely way. Judging from the profile of the individuals that President-elect Biden chose for his NASA transition team, it looks as though the Artemis program will be reduced even more in importance.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have not only landed a rover on the dark side of the moon, but they have now successfully retrieved lunar rocks—the first time in decades that this has been done. China’s leadership does not intend to stop with unmanned missions to the moon. The recent Chang’e-5 mission (launch rocket pictured above) was merely the proof that China has achieved the same capabilities as the Americans.
Now, China will outpace America. Two years ago, Ye Peijian, the head of China’s lunar mission, declared that China’s leaders viewed the moon as they do the South China Sea, with Mars being analogous to Huangyan Island. Meanwhile, NASA is reduced to begging for money to create new spacesuits for its lunar mission.
Compare these events today to the Cold War. In the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the competition between the two superpowers was visceral and the stakes were existential. There was no area of human life where the conflict did not play out … and where the combatants did not fight with everything they had to win.
When the Soviet Union beat the Americans by getting humanity’s first satellite in orbit—Sputnik—most Americans and their leaders rightly panicked. By the time the USSR placed the first human in orbit, America’s leaders knew that they could not simply shrug and lazily say, “We’ll get there eventually, too.”
This lackadaisical attitude that yesteryear’s Americans quickly overcame, however, is precisely how the Americans have responded to China’s impressive gains over the last few years. Denialism will not preserve America’s superpower status. Decisive political action will. America’s leaders, however, are still bickering with each other over petty partisan politics. Xi Jinping and China’s leaders laugh and march on.
Had it not been for the virile leadership of John F. Kennedy and his declaration at Rice University in 1962 that the United States would send the first humans to the moon by the end of that decade, the Soviets would have defeated the Americans in the moon race as well. Had that occurred, history for the rest of the Cold War would have played out differently. The spin-off technology that the Apollo program provided the United States might never have been realized in America. Instead, those impressive gains would gone to the USSR … and the inevitable implosion of the Soviet Union might have not happened.
Between China’s breakthrough in quantum supremacy and its successful lunar missions—as well as its clearly defined strategy for achieving dominance in both the high-tech sector and in space—the American leaders have ignored multiple Sputnik moments. China now has momentum in this new cold war. America’s political instability is only exacerbating these frightening trends.
What’s needed now is a bipartisan commitment to investing in the technology and capabilities that will allow for the United States to leapfrog the Chinese in critical areas, including quantum computing. American leaders must also ensure that the United States remains the dominant space power by permanently placing astronauts on the moon and Mars, and by deploying defensive space weapons above the Earth.
As an investor from China once told me, “When the donkey and elephant make war upon each other, few in your country benefit.” The bitter partisan divide in America today is a strategic liability. This division will affect the trade, economic, technology, and space policies of this country—at a time when consistency and bipartisan leadership is needed in all these areas. Until we recognize China’s threat and rally as one nation, America’s surrender to China in the new cold war is assured.
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower,” from Republic Book Publishers. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.