That a long-term ambition of Beijing’s space program is to put a Chinese on the Moon has been as badly a kept secret as the PLA-Navy’s wish to establish a carrier fleet. This Bystander noted in 2010, as China launched its second lunar probe, intended to test technologies that will allow it to land and return an unmanned mission on the Moon in 2013 (see artists impression below), that 2025 to 2030 had been pencilled in for a manned flight. The recently published white paper on China’s space program publicly confirms the goal but adds nothing to the potential timing, saying only that the tasks for the next five years include conducting “studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.
Only a dozen people, all Americans, have put foot on the Moon. The most recent were there in December 1972. Like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union before it, China sees its space program as both fostering the development of advanced technologies for military and civilian use, and as a statement of its emergence as a world power. The illustration above from state media suggests that China’s space scientists may have more than dreams of just getting one of their countrymen to the Moon and back again dancing in their heads.
More trouble on China’s western borders, this time inside them. Eight people have been killed in another clash between police and suspected Uighur separatists in Hotan, the prefecture containing the Xinjiang city of the same name close to the border with the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. In July, 14 people died in a firefight in the city after a group of 18 men took over a police station in the city, replacing the Chinese flag flown there with a pro-Jihadist banner. The militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, and for two attacks in Kashgar the same month.
In this latest incident, police say they rescued two hostages whom they say “violent terrorists” had kidnapped in a remote mountainous southern area of the prefecture, killing seven of the kidnappers and wounding four others. One police officer died and another was wounded in the operation, which took place overnight Wednesday/Thursday. Earlier this month, another kidnapping and killing had been reported, of a Uighur man accused of drinking alcohol. State media links both incidents to what it calls “a surge in religious extremism” in the Muslim ethnic Uighur-dominated area that borders Kashmir. The “extremists are becoming bolder, and their attacks more brutal,” Xinhua says.
China is desirous of a return to the stability along its borders that it had grown accustomed to until recently where it touches Pakistan and Burma. While it can only exert diplomatic pressure on those two countries, enforcing social order within its own territory is within its own hands. Previous outbreaks of ethnic violence in resources rich Xinjiang, which is heavily Muslim and has more in common culturally with Central Asia than with much of China to its east, have been met with crackdowns, even as Beijing has poured billions of yuan of development investment into the region. However, much of the fruits of that has gone to newly arrived Han Chinese, who now constitute a majority, only deepening the divide with native Uighurs, as does Beijing’s campaign of cultural assimilation.
China’s first aircraft carrier is conducting its third set of sea trials, the defense ministry says. The Varyag had set out on its second sea trials at the end of November, during which it was photographed at sea for the first time by an American satellite. The picture above is one of the latest of the vessel to be published, and is believed to be of the former Soviet carrier again leaving its berth in Dalian where it had been refurbished. That it is dated December 22nd suggests the carrier has been at sea for several days.
The latest look-ahead for China by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sees a big jump in cereal imports. The FAO’s recently published Global Information and Early Warning System, GIEWS, country brief says that total cereal (barley, maize, wheat and rice) imports for the 2011/12 grain marketing year, which runs from July to June, will reach at least 9.2 million tonnes, a new record, and a 92% increase on the 2010/2011 figure. This is despite ‘significant’ increases in cereal production over the past few years, including another record harvest this year which saw prolonged drought conditions in several regions in the country.
The increase reflects government efforts to provide irrigation to drought-affected farmers, and higher procurement prices intended to encourage the production needed to meet rising self-sufficiency targets. Supply still struggles to keep up with demand so government will need to sustain its policy measures to stabilize domestic cereal prices, whose sharp rises over the past year have been significant contributors to consumer price inflation.
Footnote: During last winter and spring, China spent 216 billion yuan ($34 billion) on infrastructure to improve water supplies to farmland, an official with the Ministry of Water resources told the annual central conference on rural work in Beijing this week. That was a 44% increase on the same period a year earlier. Spending is expected to rise a further 10% to 258 billion yuan during this winter and the coming spring as the push to sustain agricultural production is maintained.
China’s top diplomat, Dai Bingguo, has been busy in troublesome places for China’s foreign policy just beyond the country’s outer marches, first visiting Myanmar, now Pakistan: two outlets for China’s overland energy routes to the oil of the Middle East, and forming a pincer around India.
The two countries provide mirror image challenges for Beijing’s foreign policy. In Myanmar’s case, a fast ally turning towards Washington; in Pakistan’s case, an ally of Washington, if never a fast one, falling out with its erstwhile friend and turning toward Beijing. In both places, there is unrest: ethnic minorities fighting for autonomy in northern Myanmar along the border with Yunnan; the overspill of the Afghanistan conflict in the other, along the border with Xinjiang, Beijing also believes that its own rebellious Uighurs take shelter in exile in northwestern Pakistan.
Beijing’s interest lies neither in turning allies nor picking sides, however. It is in stability, so it’s strategic commercial interests, such as CNPC’s new oil exploration deal in Afghanistan, can thrive and its hydropower stations, oil terminals, pipelines, and the coaling stations for its blue water fleet — its string of pearls around the Indian Ocean — can be constructed without disruption.
China, Japan and South Korea have been discussing creating a free-trade zone for some years. Every time their leaders meet, in pairs or collectively, the language used to describe progress is increasingly purposeful. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his visiting Japanese counterpart, Yoshihiko Noda, now say the discussions have reached the point where formal negotiations could start next year.
The three countries are already closely tied by trade and investment as well as physical proximity. Japan and South Korea are China’s largest trade partners after the U.S. and the E.U. The agreement to settle yuan-yen trade currency conversions directly, also announced during Noda’s visit, will only help boost economic ties.
Similarly Beijing’s approval for the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (the old Ex-Im Bank) to issue yuan-denominated bonds in China–a first for a foreign government agency– and Tokyo’s plan to hold a small amount of Chinese government bonds in its official reserves support the internationalization of the yuan, and thus provide a growing alternative to the dollar as the working currency of any trilateral free-trade zone.
Those existing and coming economic links make it more likely that a free trade agreement can be stuck between the three before agreement is reached on setting up the much larger proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the U.S. now wants to join and promote but from which China is being excluded. Indeed the TPP may have provided some impetus to China, Japan and South Korea’s discussions. Together the trio account for 16% of world GDP, so a free trade agreement between them would create a formidable bloc just by dint of their economic size alone.