The Cold War era in space was always depicted as involving a looming showdown between the US and the Soviet Union, but China has emerged in the 21st Century as posing the greatest challenge to US dominance.
Specifically, the ability of China to pursue a much faster and grander scheme for dominance in satellites is increasingly apparent. Multiple launch sites in China are being upgraded and plans proceed to establish an offshore launch capability in the South China Sea.
Beijing has had some ups and downs this past year with two failed satellite launches in the summer, for example, but overall its manned and unmanned space programs are on schedule.
While the US still enjoys a substantial advantage over China both in terms of space hardware and a more diverse and experienced space culture augmented by a private sector presence, China is swiftly closing the gap.
This has raised concerns in the US military establishment, though not all those involved in the issues see China’s rise as a threat.
China seems more focused than the US at present on what exactly it wants to do in space, said Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.
“China is definitely getting more confident about its capabilities, and its place in the world. This is especially true given the perception that the US has no clear grand strategy for the future, rather just lots of tactics being randomly applied, in an environment where US domestic politics is in chaos,” Johnson-Freese said in an email.
“So should the US be concerned that China will look for opportunities to use its space power in ways that have garnered the US advantages in the past? Absolutely,” she said.
Follow the leader
One complicating factor, according to Johnson-Freese, is that “the US became accustomed to certain space ‘privileges’ when it was leading technologically — such as certain ‘sanctuary’ orbits.”
As technology in China and other countries matures, the question is whether the US can keep its privileged position or will others demand equal access. The US is caught in a tough spot of supporting a policy of ‘do as we say, not as we do’, ” said Johnson-Freese.
She added that all countries want access to space which the Outer Space Treaty guarantees, but the fact that the vast majority of space technology has dual military and commercial use means that security dilemmas are created when countries pursue that access.
Victoria Samson, Washington DC Office Director at the Secure World Foundation, considers herself an “outlier within the US national security space community” when it comes to the growing competition between the US and China for control of space.
“I do not see space as a zero-sum game: that is to say, I don’t see that China’s efforts/capabilities in space directly correlates to a diminishment of US capacity. It is beneficial for China to be investing a lot of money in their space assets for several reasons,” said Samson via email.
“The more money they have invested in orbit, the less likely they are going to be cavalier about testing an ASAT (an anti-satellite weapon), creating large amounts of debris on orbit, or in other ways, being party to norms that threaten their space assets.”
She views China’s space capabilities as possibly “directly complementary to US capabilities ” as in the case of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system and the US Global Positioning System.
More importantly, however, Samson describes the uptick in China’s activities in space as giving, “them more incentive to demonstrate and push for responsible behavior in space.”
At the same time, she admonishes the U.S. for turning its back on a very important dimension of the global space enterprise.
China uses its space capabilities “as a type of soft power outreach for other countries interested in generating their own satellites/space programs/harnessing the power of space for their own national needs and development. The US used to be pretty good at that, but has let that drop by the wayside.”
Reject the premise
Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst and the China Project manager for the Global Security Program of the Massachusetts-based Union for Concerned Scientists, goes one step further.
“I reject the premise that there is a growing competition between the US and China for control of space. Leaving aside the question of whether space can be controlled – a question whose answer depends on how ‘control’ is defined – it takes two to compete and the US is the only one playing the space control game,” said Kulacki.
“China is developing a comprehensive set of space capabilities, mostly for civilian use, that also have important military applications. It is steadily improving the quality and increasing the quality of the satellites it puts in orbit, the instruments they carry, and the infrastructure on the ground needed to launch, support and utilize them.”
Of course, this is making the US military increasingly uncomfortable, and critics of the moves that China is making in space are bemoaning the US’s loss of control in space in the process.
“That’s led some US war planners to look for ways to disrupt or destroy Chinese space capabilities, which, broadly defined, are what they referring to when they talk about ‘space control.’ China has its own ASAT research and development program, but there is no indication Chinese war planners imagine they can use their ASAT capabilities to control space,” said Kulacki.
“It is important to remember that an interest and a capability to research, develop and even to test any military technology does not necessarily imply there is a specific intent or strategy to use it in a future conflict, he said.
“In China’s case, the most compelling explanation for their ASAT program is that they simply want to have that tool at their disposal should a conflict arise. That’s not an unreasonable approach, especially when you’re most likely adversary talks so much about space warfare and space control.”
Kulacki points to the space dimension of the Cold War, and how the US and the Soviet Union “both decided that the risks of attacking the satellites of a nuclear-armed adversary were greater than any imagined benefits.”
“They came to that realization together through a process of discussion and negotiation; a process aided by regular cooperation in space science and exploration,” said Kulacki.
“We can and should follow the same path with the Chinese, beginning with the lifting of Congressional restrictions on contact and cooperation between space professionals in the US and China.”