TOKYO - Upstart China challenges the United States by blasting a satellite out of orbit. North Korea lobs a missile over Japan, prompting Tokyo to initiate a multibillion dollar spy satellite program. India is readying a lunar mission, while rival Pakistan makes headlines with a new, improved warhead.
The most heated space race since the Cold War is under way in Asia, where countries are concluding that a space program is no longer just an expensive status symbol but a matter of national security. And they are scrambling to keep abreast.
China, the only Asian country to put its own astronauts into orbit, is far ahead.
But India, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan all have satellites in orbit. North Korea claims to have sent one up with its 1998 ballistic missile launch and to have used it to broadcast messages from its leader, Kim Jong Il, though that claim has never been substantiated.
Japan is closest to keeping pace with China.
After a decade of work, Tokyo in February completed a network of four spy satellites that can monitor any spot on the globe, every day.
Japan's program was spurred by the 1998 North Korean test of a Taepodong ballistic missile, which flew over its main island and into the Pacific somewhere off the coast of Alaska. Tokyo now spends about $500 million a year on its spy satellite program.
Japan, India and China currently have the capability to launch their own rockets into space, and Pakistan and North Korea have active missile programs.
Most Asian countries don't have the money to compete in space. But for those that can afford it, budgets are rising. In 2000, South Korea broke ground on a $277 million rocket launch site. It plans, with Russian help, to put a small satellite in orbit next year. India is hoping to launch its Chandrayaan-1 moon mission this year or next. Still, India's technological prowess and $700 million space budget remain well behind its ambitions. China spends at least $1.2 billion on space-related projects and the United States about $16 billion.