While much has been said about China's military expansion and modernization, the Asian giant is also focused on developing its space program and is about to launch its first space lab module, an unmanned prototype for a future space station.

In the last few years, Sino-American relations have been marked by increased competition, with Washington suspicious of China's military overhaul, so analysts are now waiting to see whether the two countries will decide to cooperate or will launch a new space race.

China's interest in space saw it join the small club of nations that have launched a person into orbit in 2003, with two other manned missions coming in 2005 and 2008. China is preparing to launch Tiangong-1, a space lab test module, atop a Chinese Long March 2F rocket, probably Thursday or Friday.

Tiangong, which means "Heavenly Palace," will be used in tandem with a spacecraft due to launch later, Shenzhou 8, with China expected to demonstrate its first docking maneuver.

Months after NASA ended the 30-year shuttle program, China is on its first step toward the goal of landing the first human on the moon since 1972.

Many now expect NASA to begin planning for human missions to an asteroid and Mars, in an effort to prove America is still ahead in space, but with China catching up, things could heat up.

"The U.S. is currently in a situation of refocusing its spaceflight efforts," Joan Johnson-Freese, chairwoman of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. told Space.com

"We don't have the political will that China has right now. If there's a race going on, their advantage is through political will, not technology."

"That's our choice to make," Johnson-Freese said. "That is not a choice the Chinese are going to make for us. We need to decide where we're going to put our resources."

Experts now say it will be interesting to see whether the U.S. seeks cooperation with China when it comes to space, as Russia has already worked with Beijing's space program, selling hardware and spacesuits to the Chinese.

Many doubt the U.S. would be willing to share its technological knowledge as its suspicions about China's military development increase.