By any rational metric, the United States is the world's dominant space power by quite a distance. Of the world’s roughly 1,100 active satellites, the United States possesses more than 400, half of them government-operated. Chinese organizations, by contrast, maintain fewer than 70 satellites, and probably only a dozen or so are strictly military in nature.
Still, China is aggressively expanding and diversifying its space arsenal—and the Pentagon is, officially at least, worried.
Chinese organizations are currently lofting as many as 15 (admittedly short-lived) spacecraft into orbit every year. Moreover, China is making big strides in space weaponry. In 2007, China successfully tested a rocket-based anti-satellite weapon. That test destroyed a decommissioned Chinese weather satellite, scattering thousands of pieces of dangerous, slow-decaying orbital debris as a two-decade reminder of Beijing's space ambitions.
Earlier this year, there were hints that China might also be developing a small, reusable, robotic space plane similar to the American X-37B, which debuted last year. Space planes allow a nation to quickly place small satellites in low orbit, inspect and repair damaged satellites and, in theory, sabotage the spacecraft of rival nations.
In its fresh take on space strategy, the US defense apparatus alludes to Chinese satellite-killing skills as one of the three biggest challenges to US dominance in space. ‘In today’s space environment we can’t take the stability or sustainability of space—or access to it—for granted,’ US Deputy Defence Secretary William Lynn said in November, previewing February's official National Security Space Strategy. ‘It used to be that the primary threat to a satellite was launch failure,’ Lynn added. ‘Now many countries can hold space systems at risk through kinetic and non-kinetic means.’
‘We will use a multilayered deterrence approach to prevent and deter aggression,’ the new American space strategy asserts. ‘We will support efforts to promote norms of responsible behavior in space; pursue partnerships that encourage restraint; (and) improve our ability to attribute attacks, strengthen our resilience, and retain the right to respond, should deterrence fail.’
The first point is a function of space treaties, military-to-military relationships between the United States and China and participation in world bodies such as the United Nations. The second point alludes to Washington's efforts to build new strategic relationships with India, Vietnam and Indonesia while reinforcing existing ties with Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia.
The third point is most controversial, and could undermine point one. ‘Ability to attribute attacks’ translates into ‘space awareness,’ the practice of using earth-base radar, satellite datalinks and space sensors to track spacecraft. That's a key realm in which the United States has a vast lead over other nations. Indeed, space awareness is a key enabling capability for space weaponry: in other words, you have to know where an enemy spacecraft is before you can attack it.
In boosting space awareness, the United States might strengthen its resilience in space, but at the cost of building trust with China. The United States wants China to behave responsibly in space; it can start by taking care to behave responsibly itself.