Belt and Road set to fulfill promise in UAE

Recently I was invited to attend the Jiangsu Overseas Cooperation and Investment Co (JOCIC) event in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It showcased a myriad of Chinese technology and engineering companies investing in a large, new industrial park outside the city. A 2-square-kilometer Joint Cooperation Demonstration Park is currently under construction, to expand up to 10 sq km eventually. At least the old core of Chinese investments in many countries, principally energy infrastructure and road, rail and building construction, looks set to diversify into more-sustainable and more-broadly based high-end industrial activities and enterprises. This is a welcome change of focus.

It was an impressive launch. The Chinese ambassador to the UAE, Zhang Yiming, gave an excellent keynote speech that stressed the growing importance of this part of the world in fulfilling the promise of the Belt and Road Initiative. Then, UAE governmental representatives stressed the essential nature of the key Chinese-UAE trade relationship and its collaborative nature based on mutual respect, common interests, and more sophisticated investments. Win-win and two-way cooperation and respect are the key to such success.

While there, I signed a nonbinding letter of intent for hopefully developing a high-tech aerospace and satellite educational collaboration and footprint in the UAE between their National Science, Space and Technology Center, which is affiliated with United Arab Emirates University, the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research (LSR), and finally Origin Space, an exciting mainland space startup with solid ties to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. These three parties have an aim to establish a Middle East research-and-development center in the Joint Cooperation Demonstration Park to undertake space technology research, implement staff and student exchanges, undertake personnel training, mentorship and supervision of local talents (who will also be encouraged to visit the LSR and Origin Space centers in Hong Kong and on the mainland), and help with the education and popularization of space science and the “new space economy” — the emergence of the private and commercial spaceflight industry. These cover private launch companies, small satellite constellations, plans for suborbital tourism, and specific efforts to reinvent the traditional space industry supply chain. If such cooperation and engagement can be achieved, it will help promote the ongoing transformation of aerospace core technologies, including in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, on one of the buildings outside the main exhibition complex, there was still a sizeable red banner celebrating the visit of HKSAR Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu to the same park a couple of weeks earlier

This signing event, one of four, was followed a little later by a unique roundtable discussion forum. This discussed science and technology innovation for both the UAE and China. Panel members were Dr Meng Su (CEO and founder of Origin Space), Professor Matthew Evans (provost of UAE University), Mr Ren Hongtao (counselor of the Chinese Embassy in the UAE, with specialization in science and technology), and me. The clear message we all delivered was the importance of STEM education for our young so that they are well-placed to contribute to the new space economy and the scientific, engineering and technological outputs of human endeavor that we need if we are to have a secure future and planet.

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Interestingly, on one of the buildings outside the main exhibition complex, there was still a sizeable red banner celebrating the visit of HKSAR Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu to the same park a couple of weeks earlier. It was a good omen, as HKSAR government representatives were also in attendance. Their presence clearly shows the HKSAR is looking to invest in the success and opportunities that more value-added trade can have with a country like the UAE. The importance of governmental leadership in setting the scene for the high-end and new space investment directions is needed for the HKSAR, so it was encouraging. Our solid regulatory and compliance framework, the rule of law, excellence in arbitration, and robust investment environment augur the facilitation of great things for Hong Kong in new space. However, a green light of solid support from the HKSAR government is first needed to unlock the investment interest.

Also interestingly, around the various well-designed booths and exhibits was at least one American industrial and tech company. This was a good thing and shows international cooperation and same-site sharing and participation are still ongoing, despite what doom-mongers and saber-rattlers may think! It's good to note that companies’ strategic and commercial interests can still “trump” other, less-benign considerations.

Taking stock of so-called “strategic capabilities” was also very much in sight during China’s recent historic two sessions. Much of the focus was perhaps understandably on national security. Such strategic capability greatly extends to the benefits of STEM education and robust international collaboration. This is especially in emerging ESG-compliant high-tech industries with independent-thinking nations willing to engage, like the exemplary UAE.

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Indeed, against the context of such high-level strategic industrial cooperation between China and several Arab nation-states, as showcased by the JOCIC event in Abu Dhabi, the partnership’s aerospace and new space field has become a strong focus. Apparent capacities already demonstrated in communication and remote sensing satellites, commercial space applications and opportunities, pure science missions, development of related high-tech infrastructure, and even astronaut selection and training form critical components of this rapidly developing ecosystem. Furthermore, as a robust and strategic direction of Chinese national endeavors, the rapidly growing commercial aerospace capacity in research, development and exploitation finds a ready partner in the UAE, and soon, I hope, in the HKSAR.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong, the director of its Laboratory for Space Research, and vice-chairman of the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.