Analysts say China and African nations are increasingly collaborating in space to develop their own ambitions in the next frontier.
Chinese astronauts known as taikonauts played a role in space diplomacy during a six-month mission on the Tiangong space station currently under construction.
Just last week, three taikonauts spoke with students from eight African countries via video link at an event hosted by the Chinese Mission to the African Union.
“This event is a reflection of the continued collaboration between China and African countries. The space industry in Africa is growing at an incredible rate, which is why countries and regions like China, Europe, Russia and the United States are starting to compete for a stake in the industry,” said said 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 student from Somalia wanted to know more about the future of space tourism and a student from Egypt wanted to know if it was 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 sweet corn sautéed with pine nuts, and diced beef sautéed in lemon sauce. black pepper”, and explained that due to zero-gravity, it is impossible to shower in space.
The event was not only a display of soft power from Beijing, but also indicates the importance China places on the role Africa can help it play in the global space race. said experts.
China’s interests in Africa
“These commitments are not necessarily because China and the rest are committed to helping Africa, they do so because they get economic, social and cultural capital in return,” Oniosun said.
China is second only to the United States 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 “building networks of remote sensing satellites” in Africa has enabled China to “support the logistical integration of Belt partner states and the Road (BRI)” as one of the applications of 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 the Belt and Road Initiative. Road” of President Xi Jinping, which is rapidly building infrastructure in developing countries.
“Africans 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 from satellite launches, space infrastructure, as well as the sharing of satellite resources…we have also provided high quality training to African researchers.”
Africa’s interests in space
Oniosun said Africa’s space economy in 2021 is valued at $19.49 billion and is expected to grow by around 16% over the next four years. However, by 2022, only 13 African countries had 48 satellites, including six built by China and one by the United States, with experts saying satellite communication is key to bridging the connectivity gap on the continent.
China launched Nigeria’s first communications satellite in 2007 and, in 2011, Nigeria’s second. Beijing also launched Algeria’s first communications satellite in 2017. In 2018, Tunisia became the site of the first ground receiving station outside China for its Beidou navigation satellite 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 aimed to spark excitement among young Africans and challenge the idea “in Africa that space is somehow a luxury or excessive pursuit,” Julie Klinger, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, told VOA.
In fact, African nations are not interested in participating in a controversial space race, she said, and do not prioritize military applications or even human spaceflight.
They are more interested in “developing space capabilities to address socio-economic development issues”, with climate change, environmental monitoring and disaster management being important elements of China-Africa space collaboration, Klinger added.
As China has stepped up its international collaboration on space since the advent of its Belt and Road Initiative, Klinger stressed that China should enter bidding processes when it was to secure space technology contracts with African governments.
“Honestly, they don’t always win, the majority of satellite activity, especially in Africa, is funded by African governments,” she said, with most contracts going to France, China second. position and the United States in fourth position.
Regardless of which countries African nations associate with, the students who participated in the question-and-answer session with the taikonauts have become among the youngest space diplomats to represent their country and may one day become astronauts who go into space themselves.