Is China Catching up to the United States in Space?

This is directly reposted from an April 24, 2019 Washington Post/Monkey Cage article:

April 24 is National Space Day in China — and the country has some celebrating to do. In January, the Chang’e 4 lunar probe landed on the far side of the moon, a successful demonstration of China’s increasingly sophisticated and ambitious space program. In 2018, China launchedmore rockets into space than any other country.

U.S. lawmakers and analysts are growing increasingly concerned about China’s space plans. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally mandated group, recently published a report describing China’s pursuit of “space power status.”

Where do Chinese capabilities and motives stack up, and what is the current state of U.S.-China relations in space? Here’s what you need to know:

1. What’s behind China’s pursuit of space power?

China’s interest in space — like that of other spacefaring powers — is multifaceted. Chinese leaders recognize the potential economic and security benefits of advanced space capabilities. Since observing U.S. military satellite technology during the Gulf War — which some analysts call the “first space war” — Chinese analysts have emphasized the importance of space power in modern military operations.

China’s military now pursues the goal of “winning informationized local wars.” This strategy recognizes the centrality of information technology in modern combat and seeks for China to better gather, transmit and use information, while denying these advantages to its adversaries.

In pursuit of this goal, China is incorporating space-based assets such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites as well as the Beidou Navigation Satellite System (the Chinese version of the U.S. Global Positioning System) into its military operations. China is also developing a comprehensive set of counterspace capabilities that can threaten U.S. military assets in space, including direct-ascent antisatellite capabilities, as well as non-kinetic capabilities such as lasers, cyber capabilities and ground-based satellite jammers.

But analysts also note that some of China’s most expensive and ambitious space goals are of limited strategic or economic value — at least commensurate with their costs. Human spaceflight or lunar exploration programs, for example, bring little strategic or economic advantage.

From the perspective of status-seeking, these behaviors make more sense. Being able to demonstrate this type of space capability lets China signal that it has now joined an exclusive “club.” Through status signaling, Chinese leaders can boost national pride and increase China’s influence abroad.

2. But is China “catching up” with the United States?

Analysts estimate that China’s space-related spending is second only to the U.S. program, but budgets are an imperfect indicator for measuring capabilities. The more important question is whether Beijing spends this money effectively.

There are reasons to be skeptical about how effectively these funds will be spent. Political scientists often describe China’s policymaking as following a model of “fragmented authoritarianism” — where the central government may propose policies but their implementation is subject to bureaucratic haggling at lower levels of government, which can significantly distort and alter policy outcomes. Consequently, ambitious space goals articulated by the central government may look very different in their implementation.

China is also hoping to boost efficiency by allowing the emergence of a commercial space sector, including a diverse and growing number of private space companies. Although several of these companies rely on private capital, many of them also enjoy close ties to the government — an advantage for competing on the international market. China now has one of fastest-growing commercial space sectors.

But what does it mean to “catch up” to the United States? The lunar landing does give Beijing great-power bragging rights. In terms of military power, China’s development of counterspace weapons provides a powerful asymmetric advantage vis-a-vis the United States. The U.S. military is heavily dependent on space capabilities for power projection and combat operations, and its space-based assets — flying in predictable orbital paths — are highly vulnerable to attack.

This means counterspace weapons could allow China to blind the U.S. military and provide China a tactical advantage in the event of a conflict. Ironically, as China increases its own reliance on space-based assets, its military will also become more vulnerable to U.S. counterspace operations.

3. What about U.S.-China relations in space?

U.S.-China cooperation in space is highly limited. Export controls on sensitive technologies and legislation such as the Wolf Amendment place heavy constraints on cooperation between the two powers. The most prominent example is a ban on Chinese participation in the International Space Station (ISS).

In justifying these restrictions, U.S. policymakers cite concerns over the close relationship between China’s military and its space program. This means policymakers see civilian projects as a potential Trojan horse, allowing China to steal sensitive information to facilitate its military modernization.

This lack of cooperation between the United States and China could have worrisome consequences. A weaponized space race between the two powers could be highly destabilizing, potentially escalating into a conflict on Earth or creating space debris that threatens space-based assets for decades.

The issue here is that most space-based technologies are dual-use in nature, meaning that capabilities that are ostensibly civilian or commercial in nature can theoretically be repurposed for military gain. Some analysts even claim that China’s lunar exploration program could allow it to attack U.S. satellites that are in geosynchronous orbit, for instance. If U.S. policymakers perceive even seemingly innocuous capabilities as threatening, it is possible that race-like dynamics may emerge.

Limited cooperation between the two countries may also reduce U.S. influence over future rules and norms governing space. For example, the United States is considering defunding the space station, and potentially transferring it to private-sector ownership.

At the same time, China is planning to complete the construction of a space station around 2022 — and is inviting other countries to conduct experiments on its station. After denying China access to the ISS, the United States may find itself left out of future multilateral efforts in space.

Coping with the Challenge of China's Growing Space power

This piece is directly reposted from a January 18, 2019, Diplomat article:

On January 2, 2019, China successfully landed the Chang’e 4 space probe on the dark side of the moon – making China the first country in history to do so. This accomplishment represents just one of China’s most recent steps toward fulfilling its goal of becoming “a space power in all respects.” In pursuit of this goal, China has become the world’s second largestspender on space capabilities. Driven by the dual motives of seeking status and security, China’s comprehensive modernization of its space program poses a challenge to U.S. security interests and global standing. However, by recognizing Chinese status aspirations, the United States maintains an important tool by which to temper competitive tensions, and mitigate the threat of a full blown space race.

Much of China’s space program is oriented toward enhancing China’s military power. By developing heavier launch capabilities, China can deliver intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and place heavy spy satellites in orbit. Similarly, China’s pursuit of satellite technologies contributes to China’s efforts of “winning informationized local wars.” Likewise, through China’s BeiDou navigation satellite system (the Chinese equivalent of GPS), Chinese missiles can increase their accuracy and lethality. Moreover, Chinese counterspace capabilities provide China important asymmetric advantages vis-à-vis the United States, facilitating China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy should a conflict break out between the two powers in the Taiwan Strait or in the East and South China Seas.

Interacting with Chinese security concerns, however, is China’s increasing desire to enhance its great power status. Chinese nationalist narratives blame China’s “Century of Humiliation,” in part, on the Qing Dynasty’s reluctance to adopt modern technology utilized by Western intruders. As such, technological achievements are viewed as important symbols of national power and as an effective currency for China to enhance its position at the great power table. To signal its aspirations for great power status, China invests considerable resources in expensive status projects. From the launch of the Dong Fang Hong-1 satellite in 1970, to more modern ventures – such as manned spaceflight, the construction of a space station in low earth orbit, or lunar exploration – Chinese leaders have invested heavily on projecting great power status both at home and abroad. By pursuing these expensive and technologically difficult projects, China can demonstrate that it belongs to an exclusive group of great powers.

These combined status and security seeking motives have important implications for U.S.-China relations. Rising powers such as China are often driven to “seek a place in the sun.” However, such efforts are often costly and can catalyze arms races by raising threat perceptions abroad and breeding suspicions of hegemonic intent. Symbols of national power are often capabilities that also have military applications. An illustrative case of this phenomenon is that of Wilhelmine Germany. Some scholars, for example, argue that despite facing greater land-based security threats, Germany’s status ambitions led it to invest in battleships (a status symbol at the turn of the 20th century) – which raised threat perceptions in Great Britain and ultimately reduced German security.

Overall, this combination of status and security seeking motives is likely to prove particularly destabilizing in the domain of space. Owing to the dual use nature of space technologies, almost any advance made by China in space can be portrayed as a potential threat to U.S. national security. This is especially true considering the opacity of the Chinese space program and its close ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Even ostensibly peaceful activities such as China’s manned spaceflight program can, and have, been depicted as security threats. Moreover, China’s technological achievements in areas unrelated to security – e.g. landing on the dark side of the moon – are likely to be read as a bellwether for China’s overall capabilities vis-à-vis the United States, contributing to U.S. fears of decline.

As China’s space power continues to increase, some analysts contend that the militarization of space is all but inevitable. To respond to these challenges, the Trump administration is calling for the United States to establish an entirely new branch of the military, to be known as the Space Force. In isolation, such moves are only likely to exacerbate tensions between Washington and Beijing and may give rise to an arms race in space. As China’s economy continues to grow, Beijing will increasingly have the capacity to finance a space race. Considering the reliance of modern militaries and economies on space-based assets, a militarized space race between the United States and China would be disastrous.

In preventing a militarized space race, the United States needs to be attentive to the role of China’s aspirations for great power status. Chinese status ambitions provide U.S. policymakers an important tool for forestalling conflict and obtaining Chinese support for the status quo. China is more likely to support an international order in which it has a seat at the table, and the Chinese Communist Party in particular craves international recognition for its domestic political benefits. This provides an important source of leverage for the United States to promote its interests. In practice, the United States can informally recognize Chinese status as a space power through bilateral cooperation between NASA and the Chinese National Space Agency. The United States can allow China to send astronauts to the International Space Station (while it is still operational). Beyond the benefits of inducing cooperation, these activities will have the added benefit of acting as confidence building measures to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent escalation that could lead to conflict in space.

As of now, the United States does not cooperate with China in space. There are, in fact, many arguments against cooperating with China in space – including concerns over espionage, the PLA, and China’s opaque authoritarian government. Yet, pessimists forget that the United States has managed to find room for cooperation under much more difficult circumstances than are present today. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union managed to cooperate in outer space despite aiming thousands of nuclear tipped missiles at one another. By contrast, the United States and China are highly interdependent and are not ideological adversaries. Moreover, as China’s military and economy grow increasingly dependent on space-based assets, China will also stand to lose from a conflict in outer space.

An armed space race between the United States and China is not inevitable. However the Trump administration’s current approach to foreign policy makes it more likely. So far, the “America First” approach to foreign policy is hostile to multilateralism and unlikely to recognize China’s status aspirations. The current U.S. approach is likely to result in tat-for-tat escalation – a competition in which China will increasingly be able to finance. U.S. policymakers would be wise to recognize the importance of status considerations in Chinese space program and adopt a broader toolkit for mitigating competitive tensions in the increasingly important domain of space.

The Club That Shouldn’t Exist: India’s ASAT Test, Status Concerns, and the Importance of Social Stigmas 

India recently destroyed one of its own satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). Although analysts have noted the security motives behind India’s ASAT test, the discourse surrounding this event—articulated by the Modi Administration and echoed by foreign media—suggests additional motives, and sets a dangerous precedent.  

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on public television to announce India’s successful anti-satellite test, claiming that India “made an unprecedented achievement,” and that it had  “registered its name as a space power.” Abroad, international media similarly described the event in a curious manner, claiming that India had joined an “exclusive club” of states—including the United States, Russia, and China—to conduct an ASAT test. 

This framing suggests that the ASAT test was an attempt to increase India’s status in world politics. Although international politics is typically conceived of as driven by concerns over profit or security—a growing body of scholarship finds that states—like the humans that comprise them—care deeply about position, and perceptions of where they rank on a social hierarchy. Status is a valuable form of symbolic currency at the international level and it is also an important means by which states can enhance national pride domestically.

States compete for status in several arenas—including athletics, military power, and technological prowess. In attaining status, states seek distinguish themselves, demonstrating that they belong to an exclusive group. Formal groupings such as the G8 and the UN Security Council represent a few examples of high status “clubs” in international politics. Yet, other informal groupings also exist, such as being a “naval power” or a “space power.” The domain of space is an important arena in which states vie for status. As space capabilities typically require high costs and technological sophistication, the states that possess difficult and complex capabilities can signal that they belong to an exclusive club of great powers. It is for this reason that the discourse surrounding India’s ASAT test is dangerous. Should ASAT tests be perceived as a marker of status for aspiring space powers, more countries could be tempted to demonstrate their own ASAT capabilities—to signal their status aspirations both at home and abroad. 

Should more states conduct ASAT tests, this could have several significant consequences. ASAT tests creates large amounts of space debris—shrapnel flying at high velocities and threatening any space assets in its path. Much of this debris, traveling at thousands of kms per hour, will remain in orbit for decades to come. Some scientists warn that as space debris continues to increase—and collide into other objects in space (including other space debris) it will result in a slow acting chain reaction (the Kessler Syndrome), making LEO effectively inaccessible to human activities for decades.  Considering the amount of assets located in this orbital trajectory, and the dependence of modern day global economy on these assets—space debris constitutes a threat to all states. 

 India portrays its ASAT test as a “responsible” test. Unlike China’s 2007 ASAT test, carried out at an altitude of 800 km, India destroyed a satellite at 300 km. Consequently, the resulting debris is estimated to stay in orbit for months, as opposed to decades (as in the case of China). Even if this should prove true—which is increasingly appearing to be unlikely—this demonstration sets a dangerous precedent. If India’s ASAT test is recognized by other states as demonstrating its technological prowess in space, it may encourage other states to conduct similar tests. The formation of an “ASAT club” may be viewed as an important status marker for other emerging space powers. Moreover, future ASAT tests may be executed in a less “responsible” fashion—creating space debris that threatens space based assets for decades. Criticism of India’s ASAT test may ring hollow, as the United States, Russia, and China have each carried ASAT tests. Yet, two wrongs do not make a right (let alone four). 

For these reasons, it is important that the United States and other states condemn and stigmatize ASAT tests. The idea that social opprobrium may help prevent these kinds of tests may sound outlandish, as it is often assumed that in the anarchic state of world politics, states do whatever is needed to maximize their power or security. Yet, stigmas and normative taboos have worked effectively in the past. Despite the security benefits of landmines, states across the world have worked together to ban and stigmatize their use. In a similar manner, nuclear weapons have also attained a similar stigma. Once the marker of great power status, states that acquire nuclear weapons today are viewed as “rogue” or “revisionist.” ASAT weapons similarly need to be stripped of any symbolic power as a marker of status.  

So far the international response to India’s ASAT test has been weak. This partly reflects diplomatic sensitivities and perhaps even the genuine belief that India’s test was somehow innocuous. Criticism of ASAT testing should be applied uniformly and not simply in a reactive fashion. Norms against ASAT testing should be codified in international law. As of now, the Outer Space Treaty does not forbid testing of ASAT weapons, and China and Russia’s proposed draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force (PPWT) similarly does not include bans on ground based hit-to-kill vehicles. If great powers are unwilling to take leadership on this issue, civil society should place greater pressure on governments to do so. The stakes on this issue are incredibly high—as states, businesses, and individuals would all be impacted should space debris continue to proliferate. For all of the potential reasons a state should want to carry out an ASAT test, status should not be one of them.