On January 23, 2023, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA) Josef Ashbacher announced that Europe has no intentions of sending astronauts to China’s recently completed space station.
While this decision will likely do little to slow China’s space ambitions, it suggests that Beijing’s assertive behavior, human rights abuses, and implicit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are increasingly alienating Europe.
Space stations are difficult and costly to build. The material benefits of having a space station are questionable relative to the costs, especially when considering uncrewed robotic alternatives. U.S. lawmakers have even considered defunding the International Space Station (ISS) due to its steep costs. While it is unclear exactly how much China has spent on its space station, it has likely done so at a considerable cost and has taken three decades to achieve its goal.
While China’s space station may be popular among domestic nationalist audiences, it is also important in advancing Beijing’s goal of elevating China’s soft power, diplomatic influence, and international prestige. The space station is a means for China to present itself as a responsible public goods provider on the international stage, especially if the ISS is defunded. It helps China appear as a more inclusive alternative to the United States, with China currently banned from participating in the ISS.
China has already solicited bids at the United Nations to host experiments on its space station. The ESA had been in dialogue with Beijing about sending astronauts to China’s space station and even sent European astronauts to conduct sea survival training in China.
The decision by the ESA to not send European astronauts to China’s space station represents a symbolic blow to Beijing’s political aspirations. China’s space station — the crown jewel of its space program — is unlikely to garner China diplomatic or reputational benefits with other great powers. But the ESA’s decision is unlikely to slow China’s largely indigenous space program. As of now, this lack of engagement appears to be limited to just the space station and it is unclear whether there will be further restrictions on cooperation.
In response to the ESA’s decision, Chinese commentators have been cautious not to criticize the ESA directly. Instead, most place blame on the United States. For example, a recent Global Times commentary claims the ESA has been “increasingly kidnapped by the U.S. amid ongoing and prolonged Russia–Ukraine conflict,” blaming the United States for playing a “zero-sum game” while leaving a “friendly door open” to Europe.
Though China may attempt to point blame at the United States, the ESA’s decision is due to China’s actions. While there has often been a gap between how the United States and its partners across the Atlantic view China, this gulf in perceptions is narrowing. Diplomatically, China may be interested in projecting a benign image. But its increasingly assertive foreign policy and the nationalistic impulses of its “wolf warrior” diplomats are undermining its ability to project a benign image across many parts of the world.
China’s violent crackdown in Hong Kong and its placing of an estimated 800,000 to two million Uyghur Muslims in internment camps is further raising skepticism among European audiences about Chinese claims of being a responsible power.
Most importantly, Beijing’s continued friendship with Russia is souring European attitudes toward China. Russia and China released a joint statement following the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing stating that the “friendship between the two states has no limits.”
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed China in a difficult spot. Just as China is seeking to increase ties with Moscow, Russia has instigated an illegal and highly unpopular war. China claims to seek a peaceful solution and has even advanced a tone-deaf peace proposal without consulting Ukraine. Evidence also suggests China has provided nonlethal support to Russia and recent reports indicate that China is even considering providing lethal military support. Although European attitudes regarding China are not monolithic, they are increasingly unified in skepticism.
While China is growing materially more powerful on the world stage, Beijing’s attempts at soft power are failing. China cannot simply achieve its political objectives through material inducements, whether through the Belt and Road Initiative or by building a space station.
From widespread human rights abuses and strident nationalism to Beijing’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s actions are driving Europe away from its orbit. While China may be viewed more favorably in other parts of the world, particularly among countries in the Global South, it is alienating itself from some of Europe’s most important political actors.
China’s actions are increasingly undercutting its influence in Europe. Yet in China’s closed political system dominated by the rule of President Xi Jinping, there are few incentives to tell the emperor he has no clothes — and that his foreign policy is undermining Chinese interests. Without the ability to correct course, China will continue to be surprised that it cannot buy itself the friends, influence, and great power status it craves.
The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force, or The Air University.
This article was originally published on the East Asia Forum.